Ingram Professor of Cancer Research
Professor of Biochemistry
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
Triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) accounts for approximately 25 percent of breast cancer deaths. There are no targeted therapies for this disease and thus, a critical need persists to develop better therapeutic options. Dr. Cortez’s studies suggest that at least a subset of these cancers are especially dependent on a process called replication stress response that is coordinated by the ATR protein kinase. Replication stress is common in cancer cells, particularly triple negative breast cancers, and many cancer cells develop gene mutations in these pathways, which promote tumorigenesis. This in turn makes these cancer cells more reliant on the alternative replication stress pathways and provides a therapeutic opportunity, as long as we know which patients would benefit from agents targeting these pathways. Dr. Cortez is collaborating with other researchers at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center to develop inhibitors of the ATR protein and through this work, identified genetic relationships that might pinpoint the cancer subtypes most susceptible to this approach. They have shown that ATR inhibitors synergize with standard chemotherapies in TNBC and even re-sensitize resistant tumor cells to therapy. In the coming year, they will further characterize the mechanism of action of ATR targeted drugs and study how best to utilize this therapy for clinical benefit.
Dr. Cortez graduated summa cum laude from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana with Highest Honors in Biology and Biochemistry. He received his doctorate in 1997 in Molecular Cancer Biology from Duke University. After post-doctoral training as a Jane Coffin Childs Fellow at the Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Cortez joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2002. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 2007 and Professor of Biochemistry and Ingram Professor of Cancer Research in 2009. Dr. Cortez is Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Biochemistry, and a member of the Editorial Boards of the journals Cell Reports, Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Journal of Biochemistry. He became co-leader of the Genome Maintenance Program in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center upon its inception in 2007.
Dr. Cortez’s research focuses on the mechanisms that maintain genome integrity. His research has been published in journals including Science, Genes and Development, Cell Reports, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cancer Research, and Molecular Cell. He has received several awards recognizing his scientific achievements including the Howard Temin Award from the National Cancer Institute, the Wilson S. Stone Memorial Award, and a Pew Scholar Award from the Pew Charitable Trusts.