Karen Sfanos, M.S., Ph.D.
The V Foundation: Tell us about your personal connection to cancer.
Dr. Karen Sfanos: I think everyone has a personal connection to cancer in some way. I, like everyone else, have had friends and family members who I love dearly lost to cancer. I currently have an Aunt (who likes to call herself my favorite Aunt, by the way!) who is struggling so hard with her own cancer battle right now. As of January of this year, my Dad has also been diagnosed with prostate cancer – the type of cancer that I also happen to study in the lab. Cancer research and cancer prevention have always been things that I have been passionate about, but it’s become an extremely personal connection this year.
TVF: Why did you choose this career?
Sfanos: That’s an interesting question. Early on, I would have said it’s because of how much I’ve always loved science, how excited I get about biomedical research, and my desire to translate what I am doing at work into helping people with cancer. I actually started my scientific career as a marine biologist, but soon fell in love with working “at the bench,” and realized there was a way to apply the same tools I was using to study marine microbial populations to studying how human microbial populations can contribute to both health and disease. I always laughed at the fact that I started out as a marine biologist and ended up as a prostate cancer researcher, because it sounds so random! But, lately – and especially after my Dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer – I’ve started to think that choosing a career in prostate cancer research was less of an active decision and more of a “meant to be.” Now, my biggest career goal is to put myself out of a job.
TVF: How would you describe your research to an 8th grader?
Sfanos: Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, yet to date, we have very little idea as to why prostate cancer occurs and why it is so common. One major focus of my research is on trying to determine if inflammation in the prostate due to bacterial infections can contribute to prostate cancer development. We tend to think of bacteria as harmful organisms that can cause infections and disease. Yet, it is now known that there are literally trillions of bacteria cells living in and on our bodies (many more bacteria cells than human cells, in fact) and these bacteria play very important roles in maintaining our health, not hindering it. For example, the bacteria that live in our gut help to digest and metabolize the food that we eat. These normal, healthy human-associated bacterial communities are now commonly referred to as the human “microbiome.” The healthy human microbiome can be altered, however, by things like certain dietary practices (like eating a high fat diet) or environmental exposures such as toxins and carcinogens. Alterations to the heathy microbiome (called “dysbiosis”) can lead to overgrowth of harmful, pathogenic types of bacteria, and this can lead to the development of chronic inflammation, a condition that is linked to the development of many types of cancer, including potentially prostate cancer. We are currently researching how the human microbiome can either directly or indirectly influence prostate cancer development and progression.
TVF: How did funding from The V Foundation help your work?
Sfanos: The V Foundation funded my research very early into my faculty career. This is a very important time in terms of establishing and developing my laboratory and a research program, and it is a critically difficult time for junior faculty to obtain funding and begin their research careers. The V Foundation funding definitely helped me to establish my presence in the field, but also helped me to start researching a completely new research focus (i.e., the microbiome in relation to prostate cancer). The work that I have done with The V Foundation funding has significantly changed the current research focus of the lab, and almost all of the grants that I am writing now are related to the data that was generated with The V Foundation supported work.
TVF: What has changed or will change in the cancer world because of your research?
Sfanos: I think my research thus far has led others in the field to consider a new hypothesis about how prostate cancer may develop as well as a potential risk factor that no one really knew existed until recently. What we ultimately hope to achieve with our studies is to determine whether the microbiome can serve as a modifiable risk factor to prevent prostate cancer development.