Researcher Profile: Rebecca Heist

Dr. Rebecca Heist

Rebecca Heist, MD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and thoracic oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and her colleagues have been awarded a research grant from LUNGevity Foundation to identify biomarkers for the development of targeted lung cancer therapies.

Dr. Heist is collaborating on this project with Director of the Laboratory for Diagnostic Molecular Pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital, Anthony John Iafrate, MD, PhD, and Director of Personalized Cancer Medicine and the Division of Hematology and Oncology at Vanderbilt University, William Pao, MD, PhD.

By leveraging changes to individual patients’ tumor genes that are responsible for the development of lung cancer, such as EGFR mutations and ALK translocations, researchers have successfully been able to develop and implement targeted lung cancer therapies. Approximately 60% of the lung cancer patients screened at Massachusetts General Hospital since 2009 were found to have known genetic mutations in their lung cancers. Many of these patients received treatment that targeted the underlying genetic causes of their cancer. However, approximately 40% of the patients did not have any of the known mutations. For such patients, understanding the underlying genetics of their cancer is key to developing effective targeted therapies.

Dr. Heist and her colleagues are working to identify new genetic mutations that can be used as targets for the development of new treatment options for these lung cancer patients.

“With 40% of our lung cancer patients having unknown genetic mutations, I am confident that we can screen their cancer’s genes to find new targets, new underlying genetic causes of their cancer,” says Dr. Heist. “Once we do that, we have targets for developing the drugs that can save lives.”

The researchers are sequencing the genes from patients’ tumor samples that did not have any known cancer mutations. Then they will screen the genetic codes for changes in the tumor genomes that could ”drive” cancer growth.

With the identification of new genetic mutations in lung cancer patients, drug developers will have springboards for developing more lifesaving therapies. And as more is learned about these mutations, physicians will be able to offer more personalized and effective therapy. In all, this work could offer hope to millions of lung cancer survivors worldwide.