Young Doctor Leads Breakthrough In Triple Negative Breast Cancer

You may not read about her in history books yet, but she’s making history every day.

Dr. Joy McDaniel, a Birmingham native, was a student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville working in the laboratory of Biology Department Chairman Gopi Podila. “He knew I wanted to stay for my PhD and I was interested in genomics,” McDaniel recalled this week.

But thanks to Dr. Joy McDaniel’s groundbreaking research on triple negative breast cancer, it’s now led her to a postdoctoral fellowship at the prestigious University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in search for a cure.

Triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) is one of the least treatable and most aggressive forms of breast cancer. Anyone can get this type of breast cancer, but research shows that it is occurs more often in younger women, African-American women and women who have BRCA1 gene mutations.

McDaniel was one of many students encouraged by Podila, who died in a multiple shooting at UAH in 2010. Professors in the department continued that encouragement and helped McDaniel get a position in the laboratory of leading genomic researcher Dr. Rick Myers at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.

As she was beginning her PhD program, McDaniel’s best friend died of breast cancer at age 24. That made McDaniel’s desire to make a difference in this disease “personal.”

“One out of every three breast cancer diagnoses in African American women is triple negative,” McDaniel told AL.com.

McDaniel, who is also a Spelman grad, along with her team, looked into the protein switches that are active in this form of cancer in order to look at the cellular reproduction that can cause metastasis, when cancer migrates to other parts of the body and creates tumors.

The team wanted to known what protein switches are active in triple negative breast cancer. What turns on and off the runaway cellular reproduction that defines the disease?

Using publicly available DNA data and the power of HudsonAlpha gene sequencing technology, they found a suspect in the protein STAT3. The results were published in the journal Oncotarget in December.

Early on, McDaniel wasn’t sure the team was really on to something. Then she checked the activity of STAT3 in actual tumor samples provided by the University of Alabama in Birmingham. It’s one thing to test in a laboratory cell line, she said, but it’s another to verify the results in actual tumors.

“We were able to identify the same binding pattern in actual triple negative breast cancer patients,” McDaniel said. “This was very important because,…