VCU medical student Tia Turner working in the lab.
Tia Turner, a graduate student in the School of Medicine, has received a National Cancer Institute grant to fund her research. She is trying to uncover novel drug combinations to treat triple-negative breast cancer. (Photo by Craig Hutson Photography)

There are no targeted drugs to treat triple-negative breast cancer. A VCU student aims to fix that.

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More than 268,000 people will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in 2019. Of them, 20 percent will learn they have triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease that tests negative for the three most common receptors known to fuel breast cancer growth — estrogen, progesterone and a protein called human epidermal growth factor. Since triple-negative breast cancer lacks the receptors that would allow it to be targeted by currently available drugs, physicians are limited in their ability to treat it.

“Given the current standard of care, patients who are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer don’t do as well as patients who have other forms of the disease,” said Tia Turner, a Virginia Commonwealth University M.D.-Ph.D. student.

Turner wants to change that narrative. The VCU School of Medicine graduate student recently received a National Cancer Institute grant to fund her research, which is aimed at uncovering novel drug combinations to treat triple-negative breast cancer. Ultimately, Turner hopes to discover effective, safe, targeted treatment regimens for patients with advanced forms of the disease.

“Triple-negative breast cancer is notoriously hard to treat because we don’t have markers that can be targeted by certain types of drugs,” Turner said, adding that the only currently approved medical therapy  chemotherapy  is highly toxic and often ineffective. “We need new and better treatments to help people who have been diagnosed with this devastating disease.”

Tia Turner and Chuck Harrell in Harrell's office
Turner works in the laboratory that is managed by her mentor, Chuck Harrell, Ph.D., on the MCV Campus. “I enjoy all aspects of research," Turner said. "I love working with my hands, asking questions and doing research to find the answers.” (Photo by Craig Hutson Photography)

For the past few years, Turner has worked in the pathology laboratory of Chuck Harrell, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center and an assistant professor of pathology in the VCU School of Medicine. Turner performs cell culture screenings of drugs  1,363 to be exact —most of which are already approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of other diseases.

“We look for patterns in certain classes of drugs,” Turner said. “It is a good way to narrow down drugs that are effective that we otherwise might not have thought of testing against cancer.”

The drugs Turner tests are approved for treating conditions ranging from cardiac arrhythmias to depression. “We have also seen that a vitamin D drug has been effective at killing tumor cells,” she said. By developing effective combinations of drugs that are already FDA-approved, she aims for her research to make breakthroughs in the field of triple-negative breast cancer treatment that could quickly be translated to the clinical setting.

Translating research from the laboratory to the clinic is what fuels Turner’s passion for science. The 29-year-old New York native chose to attend VCU because of the medical school curriculum’s emphasis on a bench-to-bedside mentality, which Turner said is essential to effectively conducting translational science. She most enjoys the interactive, discussion-based courses in which clinicians and researchers lead students in conversations about patients’ clinical cases.

“We discuss the patients’ diagnosis and treatment plan from a clinical perspective, as well as from a more basic science perspective,” Turner said, adding that the program is heavily focused on integrating clinical trials with basic science research. 

We look for patterns in certain classes of drugs. It is a good way to narrow down drugs that are effective that we otherwise might not have thought of testing against cancer.

Turner is pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical and translational sciences with a concentration in cancer and molecular medicine through the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research. After defending her dissertation next spring, she will spend two more years finishing her medical degree. Her goal is to work at an academic medical center where she can maintain a clinical practice, teach and do research.

“As a physician, you run the risk of losing sight of where the tools and medications you’re using to treat patients came from,” Turner said. “The majority of the tools we use as clinicians emerged from pre-clinical research. My time working in the lab has made me realize how important that part of the translational science spectrum really is.”

Turner was encouraged by her M.D.-Ph.D. classmates and professors to apply for the NCI grant, which is intended to enhance the integrated research and clinical training of promising dual-doctoral degree students who are interested in pursuing careers as clinician-scientists. The National Research Service Award is highly competitive, and the grant application process is notoriously rigorous. Turner said she relied on her friends and mentors for help preparing it.

“A lot of the other M.D.-Ph.D. students were helpful in providing me with advice on the structure of the grant application,” Turner said.

Now with the help of her fellow classmates and professors in conducting the research, Turner said she is encouraged by the research team’s initial results. She hopes her work one day will lead to new treatment options for people who are battling triple-negative breast cancer.

“I hope that our research can eventually help people with advanced or metastatic triple-negative breast cancer who are not responding to current therapies or who develop recurrences of the disease,” Turner said. “We need to offer more treatment options for those patients.”