Every day, our genes must contend with assaults that can threaten our health. Exposure to the sun’s rays, contact with environmental pollutants, and, especially, the side effects of normal metabolism can damage the genetic material in our cells. In addition, whenever a cell divides, DNA “mistakes” will inevitably occur. If a cell acquires significant levels of DNA damage, the cell will not function properly. It may even become cancerous.
Fortunately, cells have built-in systems equipped to detect and repair errors in DNA, thereby averting cancer. And if repair is not possible, a cell may stop dividing or self-destruct. These crucial mechanisms are controlled by genes, including the well-known BRCA genes. Specific mutations in BRCA genes increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer by jamming the cellular programs that normally repair damaged DNA and limit harm.
If cancer is a failure of prevention, could failed repair systems be manipulated to fight tumors? Recent research suggests that such a strategy could work, leading to precision medicine approaches to cancer treatment. At the 2018 Women & Science Spring Lecture and Luncheon, Dr. Agata Smogorzewska, a physician-scientist at Rockefeller University, will discuss how new discoveries are fueling the development of innovative cancer therapies, including some that precisely target an individual’s tumor cells by exploiting the cells’ own defects in DNA repair. Dr. Smogorzewska and her colleagues study patients with rare inherited abnormalities in DNA repair to learn how defects in their genes permit the formation of tumors. Many cancers, including breast and ovarian tumors, share some of the same defects, suggesting that Dr. Smogorzewska’s discoveries may lead to better detection and treatment of cancer in the broader population.