Edith Perez, MD
Coping with challenges is part of the human condition, but self-awareness can have far-reaching results. Just ask Edith A. Perez, MD, about her experience attending medical school.
“I always thought I would do something… it wasn’t something that I could totally articulate, but I knew I was going to do something different,” Perez recalled.
The desire to do something different started in elementary school in Puerto Rico. She talked about a classmate who boasted to the class of someday enabling people to live forever. When her turn came, not wanting to be outdone, Perez proclaimed that this would require finding a way to expand the world (which she would do).
Her intellectual appetite, it turned out, has made a marked difference for patients with breast cancer everywhere. Every day, she sets her mind on finding better treatments for the disease and to conducting research that will help others in the oncology community move forward with science aimed at improving people’s lives.
Much, although not all, 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 trastuzumab (Herceptin), a monoclonal antibody that selectively binds to the protein alteration of HER2, 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%.
“It was a real breakthrough for patient management, and I knew it would apply to thousands of patients in the United States and throughout the world,” said Perez. “We presented those data at the largest meeting ever of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, with about 16,000 people in attendance,” Perez recalled.
More importantly, she 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. To see the eyes of the patients, and their gratitude for the results of the work that we have done, is very humbling, and it has been quite powerful.”
Using tumor and blood samples collected during the study, Perez and her colleagues have continued to consider the potential applications of trastuzumab. “I routinely explore things that I hope will be more efficacious and will lower toxicity,” Perez said, “because that’s huge for people’s lives.”Many Roles at Mayo Clinic
Perez accomplishes that through a variety of roles at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, including her role as director of the Breast Cancer Translational Genomics Program. For more than two years, she has served as deputy director at large of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center based in Rochester, Minnesota, and also is director of the institution’s Breast Specialty Council. The council 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 Clinic physician to serve on the Board of Scientific Advisors of the National Cancer Institute; and in 2007, was given her institution’s top honor for investigators when she was named a Mayo Clinic Distinguished Investigator.
Finally, Perez helped launch a fund-raising marathon that led to the January 2009 creation (and continued funding) of Mayo’s Breast Cancer Translational Genomics Program, which aims to unravel, categorize, and catalog relevant molecular alterations 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, according to Perez. The event—called 26.2 with Donna, the National Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer—also includes a 5K, a half-marathon, and a relay. It attracts more than 10,000 participants, ranging from patients to elite runners, and helps raise funds not only for genomic research but also for underserved women diagnosed with breast cancer.Research Part of Her Hectic Race