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We Are Seeking The Reasons Why People Get Cancer

While we continue to aggressively treat cancer patients, Yale-New Haven researchers are making progress in discovering causes of the disease

Advances in the diagnosis, treatment and management of many types of cancer have been made in recent years. As a result, the number of cancer survivors keeps rising, lives are being prolonged and, in some cases, cures have been found. While even more effective treatments continue to be developed, teams of medical and scientific researchers are also studying the actual causes of cancers and why certain people get cancer and others don't. The goal is to identify individuals' risks, possibly leading to the prevention of some cancers. Yale-New Haven's Joanne Weidhaas, MD, PhD, is at the forefront of groundbreaking research in that effort.

Studying the Biology of Cancer

The aptly named Weidhaas Lab at Yale School of Medicine is where you'll often find Dr. Weidhaas, working alongside a team dedicated to solving cancer mysteries. Their focus is on genetics, specifically microRNAs, molecules that regulate hundreds of individual genes throughout the body. "By knowing which microRNAs are important, we can gain a better understanding of the biology of a cancerous tumor," she explains. They've discerned that changes in some microRNAs is the reason people get cancer. The million-dollar question remains, however: Why do those microRNAs change? Dr. Weidhaas believes that the answer will go a long way toward identifying a person's risk, by examining his or her genetic makeup.

From Lab to Clinic and Back Again

Dr. Weidhaas applies her research knowledge to clinical trials she conducts with patients, particularly women with breast cancer, through Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital. The information gleaned from those tests then fuels further research, which in turn advances her clinic work — a cyclical process known as translational clinical research. "Knowing why people get cancer may someday help tailor the right medicine to treat it," Dr. Weidhaas says. "It's a whole new paradigm of understanding cancer risk, which is very exciting."

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