Karen Sfanos, Ph.D.: Dedicated Researcher with a Unique Perspective

How Dr. Sfanos’ Personal Cancer Battle Provided a Unique Perspective as a Cancer Researcher

Karen Sfanos, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Pathology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, didn’t expect to dedicate her career to prostate cancer research.

In pursuit of her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins, she was interested in doing something disease-related and wanted to research something that impacted a lot of people. For her, two experiences led her to research prostate cancer.

“Everybody knows somebody who’s been affected by cancer,” Dr. Sfanos said. “At the time, I had just lost my grandmother to cancer, and I was fortunate that as a first-year graduate student you do rotations through labs to decide where you want to do your Ph.D. I had a very good experience with that and rotating through a prostate cancer lab.

“I never really expected that prostate cancer would be what I devoted my life to.”

Her Research

Dr. Sfanos’ lab studies how prostate infections, inflammation, and the microbiome influence prostate cancer initiation and response to therapies. Through this research, the field has greatly developed and there have been many advances in the research and development of new therapeutics.

“It’s starting to get pretty exciting, from my highly biased point of view,” Dr. Sfanos said. “In terms of the research that we do on prostate infections and inflammation, I think we are getting much closer to understanding that this is a legitimate risk factor. This is something we should be paying attention to.”

In 2014, Dr. Sfanos received a V Scholar grant from the V Foundation for Cancer Research. This grant allowed Dr. Sfanos’ team to focus on a “high risk and novel idea that, at the time, wasn’t even widely appreciated.”

This research provided one of the most comprehensive characterizations to date of urinary microbiomes that are present in prostate cancer patients compared to individuals without prostate cancer. They tried to identify high-risk bacteria that might have caused prostate inflammation that could be implicated in prostate cancer pathogenesis, an opportunity to learn more about what might cause prostate cancer.

“At the time, the whole concept of a urinary microbiome was very new and even a little bit controversial. Now, fast forward many years later, this is accepted as something that is important, and there are many additional papers and studies on this.”

These developments were only possible because of initial funding, and Dr. Sfanos largely credits the V Foundation for the belief in her research.

“I’m very grateful to the V Foundation for funding that grant,” Dr. Sfanos said. “It really launched not only my career, because I received that grant very early on as a younger investigator, but it helped me to guide my research into a new research focus that we are still studying today.”

Her Personal Battle

A little over two years ago, Dr. Sfanos received a surprising diagnosis – breast cancer. It came as a shock, as she was doing everything she was supposed to, but her mammogram had missed it. She felt a lump and mentioned it to her doctor at her annual checkup, leading to an ultrasound and diagnosis.

Because Dr. Sfanos was on the younger side to have breast cancer, her doctors elected to treat it aggressively. She went through surgery, then chemotherapy, then radiation therapy and now endocrine therapy.

“I’m in a very good place prognosis wise,” Dr. Sfanos said. “Certainly, no cancer diagnosis is good to hear, but I was one of the lucky ones where it was caught early. It certainly has changed my perspective on cancer, after being a patient and survivor.”

A New Perspective

Dr. Sfanos has always been motivated and dedicated to study cancer. She can see how it impacts people. But her vantage point as a cancer patient added even more motivation to her work.

“I was all in before being diagnosed myself. I think my additional motivation and perspective are more along the lines of understanding when I’m studying a potential new therapeutic, or if I’m wanting to study a new concept related to cancer, always in the back of my mind is now thinking of this from the perspective of the patient. How is this therapy that I am studying and putting my time into going to help people?”

Dr. Sfanos has undergone some of the harsher treatments and therapies. She understands what patients go through, mentally and physically, because of her experiences.

One aspect of cancer research that Dr. Sfanos saw in her personal battle was the importance of early diagnosis. Catching her own cancer early paved the way to a positive prognosis and treatment plan.

“I’m very motivated now – I always was but still am – in making sure that my research is also somewhat focused on cancer prevention and early diagnosis, because that was super important for me.”

“Now, I’m thinking of this from the perspective of a mom. I don’t ever want my children to go through what I went through. I don’t want anybody ever on this planet to go through what I went through. It’s just an extra layer of motivation and perspective in terms of focusing on what we’re doing in the lab.”

Dr. Sfanos’ vision for victory is simple – a world without cancer.

“Victory Over Cancer for me looks like a world where not only is no one affected by cancer or having to go through cancer treatments, but also a world where nobody even is worried about cancer because we know how to prevent it. My victory is not only for the cancer survivors, but also for the next generation of people that will hopefully never be diagnosed with cancer.”

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