Kornelia Polyak, MD, PhD
Professor of Medicine
2012-2013 BCRF Project:
(made possible by generous support from ULTA Beauty)
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Harvard Medical School
In earlier work, Dr. Polyak's team found that mutations occurring in the BRCA1 gene may not be an "early" event triggering breast cancer formation in BRCA1 mutation carriers. The effects of these genetic mutations are varied even in invasive tumors. Based on these observations, cancer therapeutic and preventative strategies targeting BRCA1-deficient tumor cells may not be effective in these breast cancer cases.
Dr. Polyak will investigate the clinical and functional relevance of heterogeneity within breast tumors by analyzing patient-derived tumors and models developed based on these. She and her team will focus on how heterogeneity influences therapeutic responses and distant metastatic spread as well as changes in heterogeneity during treatment and disease progression. Heterogeneity of tumor cells is a major cause of therapeutic resistance and cancer associated mortality. Dr. Polyak's studies aim to reveal mechanisms that explain why specific mixtures of heterogeneous cancer cells are present within tumors and to provide ways to interfere with them for the more effective eradication of breast tumors.
Mid-year Progress: Dr. Polyak's team found that tumors composed of mixtures of cancer cells with different properties have increased ability to grow and metastasize even though none of the individual cells have this property. These results highlight that heterogeneity within tumors leads to functional interaction among cells and that, due to these interactions, cancer cells gain properties they did not have before. Thus, for the effective treatment of tumors, scientists have to understand how tumors behave as a whole, which makes Dr. Polyak's work crucial to make progress against breast cancer.
Dr. Polyak obtained her MD degree in 1991 from the Albert Szent-Gyorgi Medical School in Szeged, Hungary and her PhD degree in 1995 from Cornell University Graduate School of Medical Sciences/Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York. Dr. Polyak completed her postdoctoral training in Baltimore at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center in the laboratory of Drs. Bert Vogelstein and Ken Kinzler. Dr. Polyak joined the faculty of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in 1998 as Assistant Professor of Medicine and she has been an Associate Professor since 2006.
The focus of her laboratory is to investigate the molecular basis of breast cancer initiation and progression with special emphasis on the role of the microenvironment and stem cells in these processes. Her work is focusing on identifying molecular alterations between normal and cancerous breast tissue using various technologies, determining their consequences, and utilizing them to improve the clinical management of breast cancer patients.
Dr. Polyak have received several awards including the Julienne Rachele Prize (1995, Cornell University), the W. Barry Wood, Jr. Research Prize (1998, Johns Hopkins University), Kimmel Scholar Award (1999, Sidney Kimmel Foundation), V Scholar award (2001, V Foundation), the Tisch Family Outstanding Achievement Award (2005, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute), the Claire W. and Richard P. Morse Research Award (2006, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute), and the 27th Annual American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Award for Outstanding Achievement (2007). She was elected to the American Association of Clinical Investigation and to the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars in 2008. Also, in October 2012, Dr. Polyak received the 2012 AACR Outstanding Investigator Award for Breast Cancer Research, a recognition reserved for breast cancer researchers under age 50.