Susan F. Smith Center for Women's Cancers Research

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About Our Work

At the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers, we believe outstanding clinical care is directly linked to an active and integrated program of basic, translational, and clinical research. The Center exemplifies Dana-Farber’s 50-50 balance, unique among cancer centers: an equal dedication to scientific discovery and patient care. Laboratory scientists are inspired by the belief that their efforts might save, or improve, the life of a patient receiving care in the nearby clinics for breast or gynecologic cancer. Similarly, clinicians can easily consult with basic scientists to better understand the molecular mechanisms behind a certain type of cancer or treatment.

Basic Research

Basic cancer research is the study of cells, molecules, or genes, in a laboratory to gain new knowledge about changes that occur during cancer, with the aim of developing new treatments. At Dana-Farber, scientists lead dozens of lab-based studies in breast and gynecologic cancers. Many of them collaborate with colleagues on major initiatives such as immunotherapy and precision medicine. They also confer with experts to build relationships between research and industry.

Our basic scientists are exploring the genetic underpinnings of women’s cancers to find mutations responsible for the disease. They are creating laboratory models to study cancer metastasis and drug resistance, exploring how to exploit DNA repair defects, and developing ways to increase cancer’s susceptibility to the immune system. This work provides the basis for clinical trials testing targeted treatments, combination therapies, and immunotherapies in patients.

Below are a few examples of the ongoing basic research in women’s cancers.

Exploiting DNA Repair Defects

Alan D’Andrea, MD, and colleagues explore how deficiencies in DNA repair can lead to cancer.

One of the most promising areas in breast and ovarian cancer basic research is exploring deficiencies in DNA repair. Over the course of a person’s lifetime, DNA is continuously damaged, but most of these mutations or breaks are fixed by the body’s natural system. However, this system itself can be subject to mutations in DNA repair genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, which cause it to malfunction. In a patient with such mutations, the DNA repair system does not work properly, allowing DNA damage to build up and lead to cancer. Cancer cells with BRCA mutations rely heavily on the PARP enzyme to repair some kinds of DNA damage. Laboratory experiments and clinical trials have shown that PARP inhibitors can have a dramatic effect on some breast and ovarian cancers, and Dana-Farber investigators are building on this work to develop new strategies for targeting the disease. Our scientists and clinicians are involved in studying DNA damage and repair in the laboratory, and testing PARP inhibitors in clinical trials.

Early Disease Detection in Ovarian Cancer

Kevin Elias, MD, and Dipanjan Chowdhury, PhD, are working on a blood test to detect early ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancers are often diagnosed at an advanced stage, so identifying these tumors earlier could greatly impact treatment — yet there is currently no reliable screening test for the disease. To address this, investigators identified a network of circulating microRNAs — small, non-coding pieces of genetic material — that are associated with ovarian cancer risk and can be detected in a blood sample. Our researchers analyzed blood samples from a large group of women, and they discovered that women with ovarian cancer had different microRNA profiles than women without the disease. While there is much to be learned about the role that microRNAs play in ovarian cancer, identifying a unique signature for this disease could have tremendous value as a diagnostic test.

Biology of Metastatic Breast Cancer

Rinath Jeselsohn, MD, analyzes metastatic breast cancer blood and tumor samples.

Using blood and tumor samples collected over several years at Dana-Farber, researchers are probing the molecular biology of metastatic ER-positive breast cancer to better understand how the disease becomes resistant to hormone therapies. In addition, study of the samples is helping scientists better understand why and how tumors metastasize, why some patients respond differently to treatment than others, and how tumors can change over time. The hope is that this research will ultimately lead to new targeted therapies and improved survival for patients with ER-positive breast cancer.

Tumor Heterogeneity Provides Treatment Clues

Kornelia Polyak, MD, PhD, studies the molecular make-up of breast cancer.

Not all cancer cells within a tumor are the same. Even if most of the cells within a tumor have a specific mutation, the tumor can survive treatment with a targeted therapy if there are a few cells without the mutation. Our scientists have developed several techniques for visualizing cellular variations within a breast tumor in the laboratory. They can compare pre- and post-treatment samples of the tumor to track how its pattern of mutations has changed. They have learned that a tumor is more likely to become resistant to therapy if it contains greater genetic variation.


Myles Brown, MD Lab

Chowdhury Lab

Alan D'Andrea, MD - The D'Andrea Laboratory

Polyak Laboratory

Zhao Lab

Clinical Research

Clinical research explores whether new treatments and therapeutic techniques are safe and effective in patients. Physician-scientists administer these to patients in rigorously controlled clinical trials to monitor patient progress and evaluate a treatment's efficacy or measurable benefit.

Learn about clinical trials.

Learn about clinical research in breast cancer, gynecologic cancer, and cancer genetics and prevention.

Translational Research

Translational research bridges the gap between basic and clinical research by bringing scientists together to examine whether a discovery has the potential to improve cancer therapy. For example, if a basic researcher identifies a gene that looks like a promising candidate for targeted therapy, translational researchers will evaluate thousands of potential compounds to see if any of them are capable of blocking the gene. Researchers refine and test the compound in cell lines and animal models.