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Donor Recognition

The ULTA Beauty Award

Area(s) of Focus

Kornelia Polyak, MD, PhD

Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
Principal Faculty, Harvard Stem Cell Institute
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School
Boston, MA

Current Research

Dr. Polyak has determined that cancer therapy has significant effect on the types of cancer cells present within tumors and that a better understanding of these changes will help in the design of more effective therapies. She has also found that cancer cells with different properties present in the same tumor behave very differently than if each cell type were present alone. These observations further emphasize that breast tumors need to be studied as a whole, as its parts can behave very differently together versus when they are studied in isolation. Dr. Polyak’s plan for the upcoming year is to further dissect the molecular and cellular bases of tumor evolution with special emphasis on the influence of cancer treatment and microenvironmental factors, such as the presence of immune cells or lack of blood vessels. Her studies are aimed at better understanding of disease progression and more accurate prediction of the risk of progression.

Mid-Year Summary

Dr. Polyak’s team has been investigating heterogeneity of cancer cells within tumors. They found that tumors composed of more heterogeneous mixtures of cancer cells are more likely to be resistant to treatment and more likely to progress to metastatic disease. Thus, understanding mechanisms underlying tumor heterogeneity will have profound impact on the treatment and survival of breast cancer patients.


Dr. Kornelia Polyak is Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and in the Department of Medical Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She is also Principal Investigatorat the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

The goal of Dr. Polyak’s laboratory is to investigate the molecular basis of breast tumor evolution with special emphasis on the role of the microenvironment and intratumor diversity 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 obtained her medical degree summa cum laude in 1991 from the Albert Szent-Györgyi Medical School in Szeged Hungary and her doctorate 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 has received numerous 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), the 27th Annual AACR Award for Outstanding Achievement (2007, AACR), the Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research (2011, MSKCC), and the 2012 AACR Outstanding Investigator Award for Breast Cancer Research. She was elected to the American Association of Clinical Investigation and to the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars in 2008, and to the AACR Board of Directors in 2010.

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