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Gloria Echeverria

MD Anderson Cancer Center

For Gloria Echeverria, researching breast cancer is personal.

Like many other Americans, she knows close family members affected by the disease, including her husband’s mother, who died in the 1990s at a relatively young age. She suspects her disease might be recognized today as triple-negative breast cancer, a more aggressive form of cancer that is also less responsive to existing treatments.

Triple-negative breast cancer gets its name from the two hormone receptors and one protein it lacks, making it impervious to newer treatments aimed at those three targets. About half of women respond well to traditional chemotherapy and recover, but the other half, whose tumors are not as susceptible to these drugs, tend to get worse very quickly. Little can be done at that point to stem the tide of metastasis.

Those are the people Echeverria wants to help.

Working with tissue donated by patients at MD Anderson Cancer Center, she leads a project to barcode the genetic material in the triple-negative breast cancer samples and transplant them into the mammary glands of mice. The animals are dosed with chemotherapy and then the human breast cancer cells that survive are tracked with high-sensitivity tools to understand why chemotherapy doesn’t kill them and why they spread.

She follows how the genomic architecture of these cells evolves during chemotherapy, in the primary tumors and in distant tissues once the cells have spread.

Triple-negative breast cancer is “a very pervasive problem that needs to be solved.”

Her hope is to better understand the cells chemotherapy doesn’t kill. How are they changing? Could drugs be designed to target them, just as newer precision medicines do for other forms of cancer? “It’s a very pervasive problem that needs to be solved,” she said.

— Elizabeth Cooney