Becoming a Lynn Sage Scholar on the journey to cure breast cancer

There are infinite choices for a scientist when determining a field of study. How does a researcher narrow those choices, selecting one particular mystery to solve over another? How does a doctor choose to research breast cancer?

Dr. Abde Abukhdeir, the first Lynn Sage Scholar from Rush University Medical Center, shares how his personal experiences helped guide his career. An Assistant Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology at Rush, Dr. Abukhdeir earned his Ph.D. from Loyola University and completed his postdoctoral fellowship at Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University. His current research investigates molecular variants that lead to or contribute to drug resistance in breast cancer. But the roots of his research began with his grandmother.

“My grandmother died of breast cancer at a young age. The thought of side effects from therapy caused her to reluctantly receive treatment. However, as she started to feel worse, she chose to halt her treatment and then we lost her.  This memory has always stayed with me and I questioned why there were not more effective therapies for cancer. 

Several years later, as I was completing my doctoral training in chemistry, I realized that my interests were in translational research. After seeing an advertisement for a postdoctoral training position in breast cancer genetics, I remembered my grandmother. This reminded me of how she chose to forego therapy, so I hoped my work could prevent other women from having to make such a painful decision. When I interviewed with my soon to be advisor, his passion and enthusiasm sealed the deal and I knew that this is what I wanted to do with my career.”

In 2017, an estimated 252,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S. However, breast cancer is not a single disease. There are a vast number of genetic mutations driving the different cases and a limited number of approved treatments. Molecular variants have the potential to serve as predictive biomarkers or novel targets for therapies. Dr. Abukhdeir’s laboratory is developing preclinical support for treatment of certain sub-types of breast cancer based on their genetic mutation, with the ultimate goal of testing these therapies in clinical trials.  His team has already identified a group of genes whose expression can predict which patients will respond to trastuzumab therapy.

“Cancer is a disease of the genes. For instance, damage to DNA can cause and fuel cancers. This is an exciting time to be a cancer genetics researcher because we are at a point where we can evaluate all the genes in our genome at one time. Therefore, we can find all the genes that are damaged. Many therapies work by finding vulnerabilities in cells that carry these damaged genes.  But now that we have this information, today’s challenge is analyzing the data and using it to make impactful clinical decisions. This is a wide area where a lot of work needs to be done, so I am excited to contribute to this area of research.”

Young researchers, like Dr. Abukhdeir, are motivated to study and resolve some of the most challenging aspects of cancer. However, pursuing truly ground-breaking research carries a higher potential failure rate. Securing large primary federal funding from sources such as National Institutes of Health requires a track record of success. The Lynn Sage Foundation dedicates its venture philanthropy to helping junior faculty investigate novel ideas and develop the initial track record to expand upon.

“I worry that one or more of the women in my family may one day receive a diagnosis of breast cancer. My hope is that the tools and treatments available at that time will be so effective that they will not fear for their lives or quality of life.  The only way for that to happen is for myself and others to identify these tools and treatments.”

Please support the critical breast cancer research of Lynn Sage Scholars like Dr. Abukhdeir. Their discoveries today could mean a better future for breast cancer patients tomorrow.