Meet Our Researchers

Allow us to introduce two of our researchers to you!

First, meet Mark Powell MD, MPH.  Dr. Powell is Senior Researcher for Zero Breast Cancer, a scientific collaboration in San Rafael, CA, and is also Visiting Scientist at Buck Institute for Research on Aging

DSCN0714.JPGQ: How did you find out about the Komen Tissue Bank, and why did it interest you?

I first learned about the Komen Tissue Bank at a California Breast Cancer Research Program conference. I was not only fascinated with the concept of a tissue bank of normal breast tissue, but realized immediately how perfectly this met our research needs. We have identified women that have very high levels of breast cancer protection, and examining the samples from the Komen Tissue Bank of women with this naturally occurring protection could allow identification of the transformations that have occurred in their breast tissue, and open the possibility of replicating these changes in all women.

Q: What types of samples have you obtained from the Komen Tissue Bank?

We have received breast tissue samples, DNA, and questionnaire data. The DNA allows us to identify a critical gene that is required for the breast cancer protection, and the questionnaire data is essential to an accurate analysis of the data.

Q: What do you hope to discover/have you discovered in your research?

Although many dream about a cure for breast cancer, there is something even better, and that is a way to prevent it. Research done on over 13,000 women in the Marin Women’s Study has led to the identification of a subgroup of women with natural protection against breast cancer, and has pinpointed a gene that plays a critical role in this process. Further research is needed to apply this natural protection to all women.

Funding for breast cancer prevention is extremely low, with the National Cancer Institute spending only 5% of its breast cancer research budget on prevention. This has led to the formation of the Breast Cancer Prevention Project, a nonprofit aimed at continuing the promising research from the Marin Women’s Study, which has now been confirmed in a second large study.

Q: How will the Komen Tissue Bank samples help with your research? What value do they add?

The Komen Tissue Bank specimens provide us with a unique opportunity. We need to identify the changes that have developed in the breast tissue of women who have developed breast cancer protection. This requires specimens from women with “normal” breast tissue, before it develops any pathologic changes. This will permit the identification of differences in the breast tissue of women with this protection when compared to women without the protection. Only a tissue bank such as the KTB provides the specimens, DNA, and data required for such a study.

Q: Please explain in lay terms how your research might impact treatment options for BC patients in the future?

Our research has demonstrated that during some pregnancies, and in the presence of a certain gene, permanent breast tissue changes occur which render the breast resistant to developing breast cancer later in life. This finding is unique in breast cancer research, and the identification of the specific gene provides a key clue to the mechanism of this protection. The Komen samples will allow us to identify the changes that have occurred and provide information on the mechanism of how these changes take place, which may permit application of this process to all women. The need for this research has never been greater, as breast cancer rates continue to increase with almost 2 million new cases worldwide every year.

Q: Our readers would love to know some personal information about you. Tell us anything at all that you feel comfortable talking about.

I am married and have 3 children. My daughter teaches science to 7th graders, and of my two sons, one teaches computer programming to children and the other is a musician. What little free time I have, I spend hiking or making stained glass lamps.

I was originally an Internist in private practice, but decided to go back to school to prepare for a career switch into research about 15 years ago. While in school, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my family learned that many of us carry the BRCA1 gene. This made it clear that the target of my research should be breast cancer.

Thank you so much, Dr. Powell!

And now, we introduce Mary Sehl, MD. Dr. Sehl is a medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer and geriatrics at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica.

Mary Sehl resizeQ: How did you find out about the Komen Tissue Bank, and why did it interest you?

I had heard of this tremendous resource several years ago at a breast cancer meeting, and learned that it was being developed to advance research in normal breast biology, which is absolutely essential for understanding what goes awry in breast carcinogenesis.  Recently, when my research team became interested in questions of whether breast tissue ages faster than other tissues in the body, I began inquiring what samples were available from different tissues at different time points. I was amazed by the wealth of longitudinal specimens and survey data available, and also by how collaborative, knowledgeable, and helpful the KTB team was.

Q: What types of samples have you obtained from the Komen Tissue Bank?

We have obtained paired breast tissue and peripheral blood samples donated by healthy women at two time points spaced at least 2 years apart.  We have also received data on the reproductive history and menopausal status of each of these women.

Q: What do you hope to discover/have you discovered in your research?

We are able to estimate the biologic age of a tissue based on DNA methylation levels at 353 sites.  We find that epigenetic age is elevated in healthy female breast tissue compared with peripheral blood from the same individual.    We find that this difference is more dramatic in younger women, and diminishes as one approaches the age of the menopausal transition.  We hypothesize that this difference is caused by exposure to estrogen and chronic cell cycling.

Q: How will the Komen Tissue Bank samples help with your research? What value do they add?

Using the KTB samples, we were able to directly compare DNA methylation levels of breast and blood tissues from within the same individual, and found that the breast appears to age faster than peripheral blood.  We plan to extend our study to examine what factors (e.g. total menstrual years, number of pregnancies, breast feeding) influence the epigenetic age of breast tissue.  We have further developed a collaboration with Dr. Natascia Marino in the KTB to examine methylation patterns in breast tissue that are associated with risk of later developing breast cancer.

Q: Please explain in lay terms how your research might impact treatment options for BC patients in the future?

We anticipate that epigenetic patterns in breast tissue that may provide additional information in identifying women at high risk for developing breast cancer.  Ultimately, this information has the potential to influence screening and prevention.

Q: Our readers would love to know some personal information about you. Tell us anything at all that you feel comfortable talking about.

I think if my husband and I weren’t both in medicine, we might be farmers.  We have planted a small grove of mainly citrus trees in our backyard, and we recently built a chicken coop there, at the request of our children Sarah (age 7) and Ryan (age 5).   The four of us also enjoy traveling the rugged coast of California, hiking, swimming, music, yoga, and ballet.

Thank you so much, Dr. Sehl! 

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