Behind the Breakthroughs: A Candid Mentor-Mentee Conversation

May 06, 2019

Season 2 of the Your Stories: Conquering Cancer podcast series is now streaming on CONQUER.ORG. Among the ASCO members featured is Conquer Cancer grant recipient Corey Speers, MD, PhD, who speaks with his mentor, 2019-2020 ASCO president-elect Lori J. Pierce, MD, FASTRO, FASCO, about the history and the future of their field of practice, radiation oncology. Read an excerpt of their conversation, “The Thrill of Discovery,” and listen to the full podcast series on iTunes or Google Play.

CS: What made you decide that oncology, specifically radiation oncology, was right for you?

LP: For some reason, when I was growing up, I was fascinated by X-ray films. So, I decided I wanted to be a doctor and wanted to go into radiology. It just so happens that in my medical school, radiation oncology was a division of radiology, and once I did research in radiation oncology, I knew this was what I truly wanted to do.

CS: You have been in the field longer than I have. What changes have you seen since you’ve entered the field?

LP: Things have changed so dramatically. There was a time when so much of what we would do was based upon patient characteristics such as age. But cancer cells are not smart enough to know how old you are. They are smart enough to know the mechanisms they need to grow. So, if you can figure that out, you can block cancer cells from getting what they need to grow.

So, a question for you, Dr. Speers. Why did you choose to pursue translational research, and what keeps you motivated?

CS: It’s the thrill of discovery. This idea that you can do things in a lab and make observations and discoveries that no one has seen before that will translate into improved outcomes for patients. It’s also patients and their families, and allowing them to live in a world where they’re free from the fear of cancer. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Conquering Cancer With Dr. Corey Speers

In his clinic at the University of Michigan School of Medicine, Dr. Corey Speers takes cues from his institution’s storied athletic programs. His approach: teamwork. His game plan: bench to bedside. The opponent: triple-negative breast cancer.

Dr. Speers and his team have credentialed several novel targets for the treatment of estrogen and progesterone receptor-negative and HER2-negative breast cancer, including PARP inhibitors, cell cycle kinase inhibitors, and androgen receptor antagonists as agents for radiosensitization. He and his group have enabled discovery that has the potential to impact thousands of patients with cancer.

“With the support provided by the Conquer Cancer Foundation, our group has been able to continue research that is directly leading to increased treatment options,” Dr. Speers said. “The funding has provided the preclinical rationale for several clinical trials that are aimed at improving the treatment efficacy for women with aggressive forms of breast cancer.”

Since receiving a Conquer Cancer Young Investigator Award in 2015, the playing field has expanded significantly for Dr. Speers. He’s teamed up with the National Institutes of Health, private foundations, and research groups from across the world in search of new breakthroughs.

“The discoveries and the progress we’ve made have really been in large part due to the support from those who have given money to allow us to do this research correctly,” Dr. Speers said. “The research we do gives patients more options and, in turn, gives them more hope.”

In the Your Stories: Conquering Cancer podcast, Dr. Speers and his mentor Dr. Pierce talk about what the future of oncology holds. For now, Dr. Speers is playing a long game. “I hope that my future holds many more years of discovery and opportunities to give good news to patients with cancer,” he said.

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