Big Ideas

Charles Perou, Ph.D.

The son of a pathologist, Dr. Charles Perou of UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center has had an interest in medicine and disease from a young age. That interest has progressed into an impressive, decades-long career as a research scientist. His graduate school studies of Human Autosomal Receptive Disease peaked an interest in the human genome and, now, working with his second grant from the V Foundation, Perou is using the study of genomics to change how doctors treat their patients.

A common misconception is that genomics is a term interchangeable with genetics, but this isn’t the case. Genetics typically focuses on the individual parts of your DNA, which is the code that determines a person’s characteristics, and RNA, which carries that code. However genomics, a relatively new brand of science, focuses on the study of DNA and RNA as a whole. Studying all genes, and all the DNA and RNA of one’s genome, allows researchers to run one test and get hundreds of results. These results can quickly identify important properties of a tumor such as type, speed of growth and the number of immune cells present.

This use of genomic characterization led Perou and his team to first identify the Basal-like/Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Subtype, or TNBC. TNBC accounts for 10-20% of all breast cancers and is a particularly difficult subtype of breast cancer as it is more aggressive and tends to spread to other areas of the body easily. Additionally, it doesn’t express in any of the three genes that are usually targeted during treatment. Typically breast cancer treatments will focus on blocking or reducing the flow of estrogen because estrogen can make certain cancers grow.  However, these treatments are not effective for cancers such as TNBC. While surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are currently the standard treatment options for TNBC, clinical research indicates that this may not be enough for some patients.  Where do we go when these traditional treatments fail? The answer lies within the body. Immuno-oncology uses the body’s own defense system to fight off harmful, abnormal cells, but before this system can go to battle for us, we have to know what is in its arsenal.

“Ideas cost money and grants from the V Foundation are allowing us to pursue those ideas.” – Charles Perou, Ph.D.

“There is so much evidence about the importance of the immune system in cancer,” says Perou.  “We can determine which patients will have a better outcome, in part, just by looking at the genomic signatures of immune cells. This exciting new field of immuno-oncology is allowing doctors to more wisely guide treatments and offer a whole new level of personal care.” By developing tests that can identify the unique traits and qualities of both tumors and the immune cells that are fighting them, doctors can determine how each patient should be treated.  These customizable plans can save patients from undergoing unnecessary, expensive and physically taxing treatments.

The freedom to explore these up and coming areas of immuno-oncology and genomics is an integral part of making advances in the way we diagnose and treat cancer. Without new ideas, we cannot move forward. “Ideas cost money and grants from the V Foundation are allowing us to pursue those ideas,” adds Perou.

Every dollar you give allows our grant recipients to blaze new trails. It gives another big idea room to grow. It’s clearing the path to Victory Over Cancer.