Dr. Melica Brodeur, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, is a 2022 recipient of OCRA’s Mentored Investigator Grant. With her project, “Exploiting SMARCA4 Alterations for New Therapeutics in Ovarian Cancer,” Dr. Brodeur is investigating a genetic mutation, found in more than half of ovarian cancers, that is associated with relatively high presence of active immune cells within the tumor and may mean the tumors are more primed for immunotherapies.
OCRA-funded scientists are paving the way to a brighter tomorrow for everyone diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Donate today to enable more discoveries.
What initially sparked your interest in science?
During my first year of medical school, I participated in the Summer Research Program at McGill University. It was during this time that I discovered my interest in addressing knowledge gaps and unmet needs in cancer care. Later, I sought additional training to practice basic science research that allows me to perform bench-to-bedside work.
What drew you to the field of ovarian cancer research?
It was during my obstetrics and gynecology residency that I was faced with this devastating disease. At the time, only chemotherapy was available to patients and even though initial responses were good, most patients returned with recurrent disease and eventually died from their cancer that no longer responded to chemotherapy.
It was also difficult to give patients a diagnosis for which I knew had a poor prognosis. I was not satisfied with the status quo and set out to try and make a difference for ovarian cancer patients. I truly believe that as a surgeon-scientist, my duty is to challenge and improve upon the standard of care — whether it be for prevention, early detection, treatment, quality of life or any of the many other important aspects that encompass cancer care.
Can you explain your research project?
It has always been a mystery how cancer cells find a way to evade our robust immune system (our line of defense). Recently, a new class of drug treatment, which is called immunotherapy, has had numerous success stories for different cancer types. Put simply, immunotherapy aims to reactivate our immune system and to fight against cancer cells.
Unfortunately for ovarian cancer patients, immunotherapy has overall had disappointing results. Understanding what is different in ovarian cancers that do respond to immunotherapy will be important to the development of new treatment strategies for ovarian cancer patients.
More than half of ovarian cancers have some form of genomic alteration (meaning a problem with the DNA coding sequence) in genes making up the chromatin remodeling complex called SWI/SNF. The SWI/SNF complex is made up of almost 30 genes and is in part responsible for turning gene transcription on or off.
Our research group had observed that ovarian cancer cases with a mutation in one of these SWI/SNF genes, which is known as SMARCA4, had more immune cells present and activated in the tumor environment. Other research groups found similar findings with other SWI/SNF gene mutations in other cancer types. With this preliminary evidence, we have set out to understand what makes these tumors more immune primed and how we may be able to harness this in the form of new therapeutic strategies.
What motivates you to persist in your research?
As a surgeon-scientist, I have the privilege to engage with two teams (clinical and research) that share the same passion to improve the lives of cancer patients.
I am inspired by patients’ experiences, and I am motivated by the idea that in some way (small or big) I may be able to contribute to the advancement of their (or future patients’) care.
What is your hope for the field of ovarian cancer research?
First of all, I hope to bring more awareness of this lethal disease which has traditionally been underfunded and underexposed. I also hope to see how innovative and cutting-edge research can translate into real change for ovarian cancer patient outcomes.
If you had the opportunity to personally thank someone from the OCRA community who supported your work, what would you say?
I want to thank the OCRA members that saw merit in our research ideas and believe in our project and the work we are doing. It is truly an honor and privilege to be supported by this community. I also want to thank those who work hard to fundraise for this initiative, those who take the time to review all the submitted projects, as well as all the people that donate to this important cause. From our whole team, thank you!
See more OCRA-funded research projects focused on immunotherapy.