Internationally Renowned Oncologist Blazes a Trail in Breast Cancer Genetics and Risk Assessment


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Olufunmilayo Falusi Olopade, MD, FACP

It wasn’t until the genomic revolution occurred that it was realized that physicians have treated breast cancer as a single disease when, in fact, from five to seven categories of breast cancer exist. Today, our focus is on individualizing breast cancer treatment and learning more about individuals and their specific cancers using genomic analyses.

— Olufunmilayo Falusi Olopade, MD, FACP

Olufunmilayo Falusi Olopade, MD, FACP, the daughter of an Anglican pastor, was born in Nigeria. Dr. Olopade’s interest in oncology first surfaced while in medical school at the University College Hospital in Ibadan, where she helped care for patients with Burkitt’s lymphoma, which is common in sub-Saharan areas like Nigeria. “I was amazed at the power of chemotherapy to melt these tumors away, often in a matter of days,” Dr. Olopade said during an interview.

After completing an internship in medicine, surgery, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology, she served as a medical officer at the Nigerian Navy Hospital in Lagos. Dr. Olopade noted that in medical school in Nigeria, students were always taught that prevention was better than a cure. This fundamental ideology has, in large part, guided much of Dr. Olopade’s career path.

Looking for a Genetic Clue

Since opportunities and resources were limited in her native country, Dr. Olopade left Nigeria in 1983 to do postgraduate training at Cook County Hospital and the University of Chicago. It was there that she began to advance her career and seek answers to some of the challenging issues she encountered during her early training.

When she came to the United States, Dr. Olopade encountered a variety of larger, solid tumors that were more resistant to chemotherapy than the lymphomas that she had treated in medical school. “I became really interested in the fundamental biology of cancer and finding ways to translate genetics research into practical ways to improve care in the clinic,” she said. “We already knew ways to do this effectively in patients with some leukemia and lymphomas, so I wanted to find these answers in solid tumors.”

Dr. Olopade’s clinical advisor, Harvey Golomb, MD, suggested that she focus her medical and scientific interests on the field of genetics. From 1989 through 1991, she was a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of renowned geneticist Janet Rowley, MD. It was Dr. Rowley’s mentorship that bolstered Dr. Olopade’s conviction that the understanding of the genetic basis of cancer would lead to breakthroughs that the oncology community could use to treat and prevent the disease.

Past Experience Guides Her Future

Much of Dr. Olopade’s current work is motivated by her own ancestry and her experiences in Chicago’s public hospitals, which led to her exploration of the genetic factors behind disparities in breast cancer that affect women of African descent. Picking up on research on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, Dr. Olopade discovered that BRCA mutations are also prevalent among African American and African women and, in part, explain the worse breast cancer outcomes in this population. She then helped teach oncologists to screen for these red flags in the clinic so that appropriate life-saving interventions could be developed.

In 1992 at University of Chicago Hospitals, Dr. Olopade also launched one of the first genetic-testing clinics in the country, the Cancer Risk Clinic. “We encountered some skepticism, but we thought that people are going to want to know whether they had an inherited predisposition to cancer, and when they’ve had cancer, they want to know whether their children or other family members are at risk,” she said.

Genetics Offers the Best Way Forward

Dr. Olopade firmly believes that advances in genetics and cancer biomarkers will vastly increase the pace of cancer research. Finding these answers will both reduce the cost of cancer care and yield better treatments. “It wasn’t until the genomic revolution occurred that it was realized that physicians have treated breast cancer as a single disease when, in fact, from five to seven categories of breast cancer exist. Today, our focus is on individualizing breast cancer treatment and learning more about individuals and their specific cancers using genomic analyses. An important goal is to identify breast cancer while it is local and curable, thus decreasing morbidity and costs,” said Dr. Olopade, speaking to Medscape.

In 2005, Chicago’s John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Dr. Olopade one of its “Fellowship grants.” A large part of the grant was earmarked to advance her work studying cancer genetics in Nigeria and other places in Africa. “I also bought a really warm coat because now I was stuck in Chicago,” said Dr. Olopade in an interview.

Dr. Olopade was the recipient of the 2009 ASCO–American Cancer Society Award and Lecture for her extraordinary contributions to the prevention and management of cancer. And in 2011, President Obama appointed Dr. Olopade as one of five new members of the National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB). Members of the board advise the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Regarding the NCI, the NCAB gives advice on reviewing and recommending support grants and cooperative agreements following technical and scientific review.

Dr. Olopade credits her drive and relentless optimism to her spiritual upbringing in Nigeria. “More than anything, my spiritual discipline has always grounded me. Ever since I was young, it’s helped me to wake up every day wanting to do my best for society, and also for my patients.” ■



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