Maysa Abu-Khalaf, MD, Clinical Program Leader of the Medical Oncology Breast Cancer Division and Co-Leader of the Jefferson Breast Center at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson answers some top-tier questions in the current state of breast cancer. In doing so, Dr. Abu-Khalaf outlines her vision and hope for the future of patient-centered cancer care, and how it relates to Komen Philadelphia’s work with the breast cancer community, as well as the achievement of Susan G. Komen’s Bold Goal to reduce breast cancer deaths by 50 percent over the next decade.
What is your personal vision as a physician and researcher?
Similar to Komen’s priorities, I want to encourage more women to come in for their screening mammograms. Diagnosing breast cancer at an early stage increases the chance of cure. And with early diagnosis, some patients may not need as aggressive of a treatment, which means fewer side effects. As a clinician and researcher, I look at both the standard treatments and clinical trials which are available to my patients. For some lower risk breast cancers, we have diagnostic tools that can help us determine when chemotherapy may be unnecessary. For higher risk breast cancers, the challenge is that standard treatments just may not be enough. Therefore, I discuss the option of participating in a clinical trial with my patients. These trials may incorporate novel targeted therapies that can be added to standard treatments and possibly even make them work better.
Tell us about your current research priorities. How will your research benefit your field and your patients?
Before assuming my position at Jefferson, I completed my training and then worked at Yale University for eleven years as a breast medical oncologist and clinical researcher. I’m involved in writing and conducting clinical trials. The focus of my research is identifying better treatments for patients with high risk breast cancers as well as metastatic breast cancers. This approach includes combining novel targeted therapies with standard treatments or replacing current standard treatments with more novel drugs. I am also interested in identifying better ways to predict how a patient’s breast cancer will respond to a specific treatment. For example, I designed a clinical trial looking at biomarkers of response for patients receiving endocrine therapy plus a CDK/46 inhibitor as first line treatment for metastatic breast cancer. This study is funded by Sideout Foundation and will be a multicenter study with about 100 patients participating. The goal is to personalize treatment so patients don’t have to take treatments that don’t work on the type of cancer they have.
What is one important change that you’d like to see in cancer care and research?
We need to focus more on personalized medicine for our patients. We don’t want to over-treat lower-risk breast cancers, and we want to appropriately treat high-risk cancers. So, instead of prescribing a one-size-fits-all treatment regimen, we need to try to find ways to determine which medications are most likely to work for a patient. As for research, it has become a tougher process to get research funding, which hinders our efforts as scientists. Organizations such as Susan G. Komen help advance science by funding more research projects. Early in my career, I actually received a clinical and translational grant from Susan G. Komen which gave me the support I needed to start a career in clinical research and study biomarkers of response for patients treated with an mTOR inhibitor.
How do you think your work ties in to Komen’s goal of significantly reducing breast cancer mortality over the next decade?
It is a big goal but I think we really have to aim high to be able to achieve better outcomes for our patients. As a community, we should do our best to—first of all—encourage women to get screening mammograms. It’s important to remember that prognosis is much better when a cancer is diagnosed early and in some cases a patient may actually be able to avoid chemotherapy. But, for those patients that are diagnosed at a later stage, we must ensure that we have better therapies for them that decrease the risk of breast cancer recurrence and reduce breast cancer mortality.
Komen has been a great advocate for women affected by breast cancer and has done so much to increase breast cancer awareness and encourage patients to undergo screening. Everything Komen does, locally and nationally, to raise awareness and build a community dedicated to supporting research helps us move treatments into practice and brings us closer to reducing breast cancer mortality.