After Breast Cancer Takes Her Friend’s Life, Young Scientist Makes Triple-Negative Breakthrough

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Dr. Joy McDaniel, a Birmingham native and an alumna of Spelman College and the University of Alabama in Huntsville, began studying breast cancer well before it affected her personally. But when a close friend died of cancer at the age of 24, just as McDaniel was beginning her PhD program, she found extra strength and motivation to continue her work.

McDaniel’s passion lies in the study of triple-negative breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form of cancer that does not have any of the hormone receptors that most breast cancers have, making it difficult to treat. It is also the breast cancer most likely to affect African American women, which piqued McDaniel’s interest and fueled her search for new knowledge about the disease.

“One out of every three breast cancer diagnoses in African American women is triple negative,” McDaniel says.

In her research, McDaniel has discovered a binding pattern in cancer cells that is now helping determine which “protein switches” are being turned on and off when triple-negative cancer is present. The University of Alabama provided McDaniel with actual triple-negative tumor samples, and McDaniel checked the STAT3 protein in them and determined that this protein is responsible for activating and deactivating the genes that affect the spread of triple-negative cancer.

“This was very important, because, by identifying where the binding occurs, we have a framework for what genes are being turned on or off by STAT3,” McDaniel says. “That was the first sign we may have identified something that may be important.”

Her work brings new hope to the idea that there may soon be a targeted therapy for triple-negative breast cancer, making it more treatable and less deadly. McDaniel believes she’s on the track to finding a way to prevent metastasis in triple-negative cancer patients.

Following the breakthrough, McDaniel received a postdoctoral fellowship at the prestigious University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center for her work. We hope she will continue doing great things in the fight against cancer!

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?