Racing Against Breast Cancer: A Conversation With Edith A. Perez, MD

Beth Fand Incollingo
Published Online: Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Edith A. Perez, MD
Edith A. Perez, MD

It’s hard to tell which moves more quickly: Edith Perez’s feet, or her mind.

A devoted runner, Edith A. Perez, MD, strides along the beaches of northern Florida whenever she gets the chance. A translational researcher who spends her time designing clinical trials of potential breast cancer treatments and studying the biology of the disease, Perez maintains the same swift pace as she travels the globe, interspersing projects at her home base, the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, with frequent trips to speak and consult.

Luckily, Perez is able to apply her mind just as nimbly to solving problems in breast cancer treatment. Rotating her sharp focus through the broad range of tasks that make up her typical day is a joy for the 55-year-old scientist who loves to read about any subject, is a whiz at math, and completed high school in 2 years and college in 3 years.

“My brain works fast,” said Perez. “It’s nice to be able to work for an hour, come up with something, then do something else, and something else. I enjoy that.”

The doctor’s intellectual appetite has made a marked difference for patients with breast cancer everywhere. Every day, she puts her mind to finding better treatments for the disease and conducting research that will help others in the oncology community move forward with science aimed at improving people’s lives.

Much of her work has concentrated on the study of compounds designed to fight HER2-positive breast cancer, leading to a 2005 discovery that changed the way the disease is treated. A study that Perez led and helped design showed that the use of Herceptin (trastuzumab), a monoclonal antibody that helps counteract a genetic mutation of the HER2 gene, in concert with chemotherapy—rather than chemotherapy alone—resulted in a 52% decrease in the recurrence of HER2- positive breast cancer in patients who had undergone surgery for the condition, and improved their survival by 33%.

Edith A. Perez, MD

“We presented those data at the largest meeting ever of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, with about 16,000 people in attendance— people who had been involved in funding and some of my patients who were in the trial,” Perez recalled. “I realized that not too many physicians have the opportunity to affect that many lives to this degree, no matter how dedicated they are or how incredibly good their ideas. It was humbling, actually.”

Using tumor and blood samples collected during the study, Perez and her colleagues have continued to consider the potential applications of Herceptin. In May, the doctor presented results demonstrating that the therapy works for P10-postive or P10-negative patients whose tumors do not express the HER2 protein.

Perez also is proud of a study she concluded 7 months earlier. The study of trastuzumab-DM1, or T-DM1, a drug antibody conjugate that combines chemotherapy agent docetaxel with Herceptin, demonstrated that the conjugate is half as toxic as the same drugs given separately to patients with HER2- positive metastatic breast cancer who had not received prior chemotherapy for metastatic disease.

“I routinely explore things that I hope will be more efficacious and lower toxicity,” Perez said, “because that’s huge for people’s lives.”

Many Roles at Mayo Clinic

The doctor accomplishes that through a variety of roles at the Mayo Clinic. For more than a year, she has served as deputy director of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, and also is director of the institution’s Breast Program and chair of its Breast Disease Oriented Group, which brings together researchers from all Mayo Clinic sites to review research opportunities related to breast cancer prevention, treatment, and survivorship.

She is a Serene M. and Frances C. Durling Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Medical School; the first Mayo physician to serve on the Board of Scientific Advisors of the National Cancer Institute (NCI); and, in 2007, was given her institution’s top honor for investigators when she was named a Mayo Clinic Distinguished Investigator. She chairs the Breast Committee for the North Central Cancer Treatment Group, sponsored by the NCI.

Finally, an annual marathon Perez helped to launch has led to the creation in January 2009—and continued funding—of Mayo’s Breast Cancer Translational Genomics Program, which aims to unravel, categorize, and catalog all the mutations present in breast cancer. The goals of the work include gaining a better understanding of what drives the disease’s growth, learning what may predict sensitivity or resistance to different treatments, and identifying targets that can be used to develop new treatments, Perez said.

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