Stories about breast cancer that can inspire and inform

Blog  |  Newsroom

‘We’re Very Hopeful’: Research Advances for Breast Cancer and Minimal Residual Disease

Komen Scholar Angela DeMichele, M.D., MSCE, has a vision to find the cures for metastatic breast cancer (MBC). As a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. DeMichele’s research focuses on new therapies for breast cancer and preventing breast cancer recurrence.

Dr. DeMichele’s Komen-funded research focuses specifically on validating new methods for finding minimal residual disease. These methods could enable therapeutic approaches to prevent recurrence by using new techniques for detecting disseminated tumor cells and circulating tumor DNA.

Minimum residual disease refers to the small number of cancer cells that remain in the body during or after treatment for breast cancer. Dr. DeMichele discussed minimal residual disease in-depth in a January 2023 MBC Impact Series webinar, equating minimal residual disease to dandelion seeds that scatter across grass and ultimately grow to become weeds.

“Watchful waiting after a diagnosis and initial treatment of breast cancer is simply not enough,” Dr. DeMichele said. “We need to find a way to monitor and detect minimal residual disease. If we can find those seeds and kill them before they can turn into a new tumor, then we could cure patients and prevent more MBC.”

Komen Advocate in Science Missy Van Lokeren was diagnosed with stage 1 invasive lobular breast cancer in 2014. After undergoing a double mastectomy and hysterectomy, she resumed normal life with her husband and two sons. Three years later, when Missy, then 49, experienced shortness of breath while on a family trip to Hawaii, her doctor ordered a CT scan as a precaution. The scans revealed metastases in her liver.

Missy has been living with MBC since 2017 and now sits on Komen’s MBC Steering Committee. The committee is comprised solely of people living with MBC and seeks to ensure the unique needs of the MBC community are integrated across Komen’s programs and initiatives. In her role on the committee, Missy advocates for increasing funding for research to one day find the cures for MBC.

“Being a part of research and being a patient advocate has really empowered me to use the energy I have for survival and trying to get through the day with this diagnosis,” Missy said. “It gives me a sense of power to help researchers and know we are moving in the right direction.”

Telling her sons that MBC is a terminal diagnosis was the hardest part, Missy said. “To this day, I’m not sure if it was the right thing to do, because they were really upset when I said that. But I also said, ‘There could be a cure down the road, and we’re very hopeful.’”

Missy’s hope for a cure spurred her to pursue patient advocacy work, including lobbying on Capitol Hill for improved public policy for those living with MBC. She also fundraises for Komen’s MBC Collaborative Research Initiative. The first-of-its-kind collaborative effort unites leading researchers at Duke Cancer Institute and UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center to find breakthrough discoveries for MBC.

“I started supporting that initiative and pursuing fundraising with my friends so we could get the money researchers need to come up with some advancement in this metastatic world that we’re all living in – where there is no hope right now, or very little hope. It was important for me to be involved in supporting research because I wanted to be true to my kids and say, ‘I believe we can find a cure,’ or at least a way so we can all live a long life.”

Research like Dr. DeMichele’s newest project gives Missy hope. Dr. DeMichele was one of 38 world-renowned researchers who received received funding in 2022 from a $21.7 million research investment, with 79% of the research projects focused on the most aggressive breast cancers, metastasis and recurrence.

“We do have a vision here that we can prevent MBC, as well as treat those who become metastatic. My research is really focused on that. We’ve made a lot of progress, and that has been amazing for me to see over the course of my 20-year career, but we have a long way to go. We have a lot of hope for what is to come,” Dr. DeMichele said.

“Tackling MBC is within our reach. It’s just a matter of continuing to fund and conduct this type of research,” Dr. DeMichele continued. “I’m grateful to Komen for funding our research. I feel hopeful for the future of treatment for MBC.”

Susan G. Komen’s MBC Impact Series provides people living with metastatic breast cancer and their loved ones a safe, collaborative space to gather information related to MBC and discover practical resources to help make decisions for improved physical and emotional health. Hear more from Dr. Angela DeMichele and Missy Van Lokeren in the January 2023 MBC Impact Series event on estrogen receptor-positive MBC.

Wellness Wednesdays, presented by the MBC Impact Series, feature educational videos on various lifestyle and wellness topics for those living with metastatic breast cancer. Watch more Wellness Wednesday videos on Komen’s YouTube channel.