September 30, 2015

Meet Shany Koren

Shany Koren works as a PhD student in Mohamed Bentires-Alj’s lab studying tumor heterogeneity in breast cancer. She and her colleagues have found that one of the most frequent breast cancer mutations, a PI3-kinase mutation, leads to tumor heterogeneity. The mutation forces cells back into a dedifferentiated, stem-like state from which tumors containing cells of various lineages can develop.

In comparison to other cancer therapies, breast cancer therapy is perceived as rather successful. Where do you see the biggest challenges still?
A: Breast cancer is still the most frequently diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of death in female cancer patients worldwide. Even though early detection, surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and targeted therapies (e.g. Tamoxifen treatment in ER-positive breast cancers) improved survival of breast cancer patients, not all patients benefit from the current standard of care. Tumor heterogeneity, therapy resistance and tumor relapse represent major challenges in breast cancer. Moreover, most patients do not succumb from the primary tumor but from metastasis for which currently there is no cure available. There is still a lot of work ahead of us to overcome these hurdles.

Q: Understanding tumor heterogeneity is a recent focus in cancer research but it is already widely regarded as the most challenging aspect in cancer biology. Why is this so?
A: Cancer is a very complex disease. Tumor heterogeneity is found within a patient`s tumor and also between tumors from different patients. Especially, breast cancer is highly heterogeneous and this tumor heterogeneity complicates diagnosis, can impede treatment or cause tumor relapse, what makes it is so important to study. Currently, the origin and mechanisms of tumor heterogeneity are not well understood. Because cancer is plastic and constantly evolves during its progression it is also very challenging to study and fully understand.

Q: In what ways can you as a basic scientist contribute to this?
A: I try to understand physiological cell fate specification in the mammary gland and then use this knowledge to find out what happens in the context of cancer. Moreover, looking at what happens in early tumor development tells us a lot about tumor progression and the origin of tumor heterogeneity. This could help to identify novel biomarkers and targets for breast cancer treatment in the future.

Q: What motivates you to pursue these questions?
A: Curiosity and contributing to the advancement in cancer research motivates me. The oncogenic lesion I work on is a very frequent mutation in women with breast cancer. I am proud to have the chance to work on something that is so significant to human disease. The knowledge we gain today might have impact in the clinic in the future. What also motivated me is that in cancer research there is the concept of cancer cell plasticity, but no one showed this in situ before. What encouraged me about my project was that by using a technique called “in situ genetic lineage-tracing” I could really see that cells become plastic in the intact tissue and follow them up until tumor development.

Q: Is there a scientist alive or dead that you admire and why?
A: I do not admire any particular scientist. I admire all scientists that cope with all the challenges that science has to offer like disappointments when experiments refuse to work, long working hours and publication pressure, but still have this passion and curiosity to continue on a daily basis. As I am a PhD student, I of course feel closest with all the young PhD students that start their road in science and have to learn so much on top of all the other challenging aspects of science.

Q: Do you have a hobby or a particular skill that helps you tackle the challenges of a young scientist??
A: I think endurance, multi-tasking and good time management are important skills to tackle challenges in science. Additionally, high stress and frustration levels might be beneficial, what, I guess, are gained automatically during the PhD. I think, also a big portion of humor is important, because it is always healthier to laugh off disappointments instead of drowning in them.

» More on Shany's work

Original publication
Koren S, Reavie L, Pinto do Couto J, De Silva D, Stadler MB, Roloff T, Britschgi A, Eichlisberger T, Kohler H, Aina O, Cardiff RD, Bentires-Alj M* (2015) PIK3CAH1047R induces multipotency and multi-lineage mammary tumours. Nature doi:10.1038/nature14669

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