Big Ideas

Kara Bernstein, Ph.D.

While it may sound like it, RAD51 paralogs are not droids from the Star Wars movies. They are actually types of genes, and Dr. Kara Bernstein is studying how to best determine if a mutation in a RAD51 paralog is a predictor for breast or ovarian cancer and how best to treat the cancer once it has developed.

Bernstein and her team at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute have set their sights on this specific type of gene because there is still a limited understanding of why RAD51 paralog mutations are associated with breast and ovarian cancer, despite hundreds of studies linking these mutations with cancer predisposition.

“I love discovering new things and translating those discoveries into understanding something new about how the world works and ways to make the world a better place,” said Bernstein. “My goal is to help guide clinicians into understanding how specific RAD51 paralog mutations contribute to cancer and to develop precise treatment strategies for these patients based on the genetics of their tumor.”

According to Bernstein, if a woman has a family history of breast or ovarian cancer and also has a mutation in one of the RAD51 paralogs, there is no way for her doctor to determine if the mutation is a cause of the cancer, which then limits treatment options. If their research is successful, not only will Bernstein and her team be able to determine the RAD51 paralog’s impact on developing cancer, but it will also give doctors a road map to best develop a customized treatment approach.

Without the support from the V Foundation we would not have been able to try out our most innovative ideas.

Like most of the researchers funded by the V Foundation, Bernstein’s passion for putting an end to cancer comes from personal experiences. Both of her grandfathers passed away from cancer at early ages, and she knew immediately she wanted to try and make a difference. “Both of my parents had to grow up without their fathers, and this left a large gap in their lives as well as mine, seeing how much they missed out on,” said Bernstein. “I don’t want other families to have to suffer, so we work very hard to understand how cancer develops and to use that knowledge to test out potential new cures.”

While Bernstein and her team push forward on research that could be critical to breast and ovarian cancer patients, it’s not forgotten how important public funding is to their research and work.

“The grant we received from the V Foundation was pivotal for my lab to develop a system needed to determine if specific RAD51 paralog mutations may contribute to cancer predisposition,” said Bernstein. “Because of some technical scientific challenges in studying RAD51 paralogs, this was a risky project. Without the support from the V Foundation we would not have been able to try out our most innovative ideas.”

Thanks to the grant Bernstein received, her team is now closer to helping cancer patients and understanding the genetic basis of their disease. She said she thinks other studies like this are the future of cancer research, moving towards a personalized approach focused on the patients’ genetic makeup. And the hope is that continuing to fund thoughtful and creative researchers like Bernstein will eventually lead us to victory over cancer.

“For me,” said Bernstein, “a victory over cancer is to be out of business and to start cracking on curing another disease.”