An Innovative Approach to Breast Cancer Metastasis
A Conversation with Danielle Desa, a 2019 Research Award Recipient
By Pat Battaglia
Danielle Erin Desa is a third-year Ph.D. student working with the laboratory of Edward Brown, Ph.D. at the University of Rochester. As the 2019 recipient of the Coalition’s Pre-and-Post-Doctoral Grant for her proposal, Understanding the Mechanisms Underlying a Novel Predictor of Metastasis, she will study an optical signal produced by fibrillar collagen in breast tumors. Dr. Brown’s lab has demonstrated that light scatter from these fibers is predictive of metastasis-free survival in estrogen-receptor positive invasive ductal carcinoma, a common form of breast cancer. Desa seeks a clearer understanding of this phenomenon with the ultimate goal of using this information to enhance our knowledge of the metastatic process and develop targets for anti-metastatic therapies.
This bright star in our research community graciously agreed to a conversation that would be shared with our survivor community.
Question: Congratulations on receiving a Coalition research grant. You’re doing fascinating work, and yours truly is a novel approach. I’m honored to be able to speak with you today. What life events led you to your interest in breast cancer research?
Danielle: It was something that developed along the way for me. When I started doing optics work in undergraduate school, I was working in another system and realized it would be really interesting to apply these kinds of techniques to disease mechanisms.
When I started looking for graduate programs, I found Dr. Brown’s work. I thought that looking at an intrinsic signal that was already present in a tumor was such a complex and interesting environment, and would be something that I really wanted to do. I thought it could have a big impact on how we study disease.
Question: Targeting the metastatic process is one of the central goals of our Research Initiative. What do you hope to add to our current knowledge about the metastatic process?
D: One of the big reasons I joined Dr. Brown’s lab was because breast cancer is such a far-reaching cancer, especially for women. And understanding the mechanism of metastasis is what we know will be important in eventually targeting how we solve that problem.
In terms of developing drugs and specializing therapies for patients, I think we need to understand physically why some cancer cells are better at metastasizing than others. That’s going to require basic science experiments along the line of those we do at Dr. Brown’s lab. And that will eventually start contributing to our overall knowledge of how we should treat breast cancer.
Question: You’re using optical signals that are produced within tumors, and I find that intriguing. How did you discover that these signals occur?
D: This optical technique has been around for a while. Second-harmonic generation imaging came about, I think, in the 1960’s. People have known that this phenomenon exists, and we see it in collagen. But my advisor, Dr. Brown, was the first person to apply it to a solid tumor. He discovered that in the early 2000’s, I believe, long before I joined his lab and started doing work in tumors.
It was about five or six years ago that we discovered the light-scattering ratio. This is, again, a couple of years before I joined the lab. But if you detect it in different directions and ratio the signals you get in those different directions, it actually tells you something about the structure of the tumor.
In that project, I’ve been contributing in terms of looking at biopsies using breast cancer patients. We’ve been looking at things like trying to see if the signal associates with how patients respond to chemotherapy.
Question: This is heady stuff. And you are a third-year PhD student. What is your ultimate goal as a researcher?
D: I see myself doing industry work, such as a staff scientist. I think it would be great to work for a photonics or optics company, but I’m not really limiting myself at this point. I just know I want to do some kind of industry science.
Pat: I’m sure I speak for everyone at the Coalition in wishing you all the best in your current work and in the future. We truly appreciate your contributions to understanding how breast cancer metastasizes. And we look forward to following your progress in this important work.
D: Thank you.