Leading Cause of Death in Women: Dr. Alice Berger’s LCFA Grant Focus

For many doctors, their dream to be scientists begins when they are children. It is often the very fabric of their being that, when they grow up, they want to be in the business of healing, making discoveries, and changing the world. Not so for Alice Berger, PhD, whose road to becoming a professor, mentor, and award-winning scientist was not a childhood dream, rather a matter of embracing and pursuing her ardent sense of curiosity.

While it is true that she always loved the math and science classes she took in middle and high school, at the time, her idea of a scientist was a “nutty old guy” concocting off-the-wall formulas in a lab. It never dawned on her to pursue the sciences while in college. In fact, Dr. Berger went to college to study engineering. Upon taking a chemistry class, however, she was hooked. Her curiosity as to how things work became a driving force in her eventual pursuit of a Ph.D. in Medical Sciences.

In part because she has a very small family, Dr. Berger was fortunate to have had no personal experience with cancer. As such, she never really held a great interest in learning about it. Until, that is, she took a Cancer Biology class which explored the use of viruses to cure cancer. It fascinated her and knowing that she, above all else, she wanted to make a positive impact on people and the world, she decided to go for it.

Photo of Alice Berger

Dr. Berger studies lung cancer, the leading cause of death in women worldwide

While pursuing her PhD, she was working in a lab that was focused primarily on leukemia. Fortuitously, it happened to also be researching and seeking discoveries regarding lung cancer. Armed with the knowledge that lung cancer is the leading cause of death in women globally, Dr. Berger had found her niche. It was this and her never-ending scientific curiosity that led her to become a highly respected and awarded lung cancer researcher.

Perhaps equally impressive is the fact that, while pursuing her PhD, her post doctoral studies and beginning a faculty position at The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, Dr. Berger gave birth to three children.

“I was really self conscious about starting my post doc studies with an infant in tow, but my husband – always a staunch ally – reminded me that, if anything, it showed that I cared more and I was showing up. From that point forward, I had no second thoughts. My message to young women is that they can do it…and having a supportive partner really helps.”

As a recipient of an LCFA Young Investigator Award, Dr. Berger earned a $200,000 grant to study genome sequencing in lung tumors in females who have never smoked. With that grant, she is working with her team to gain a better understanding of the genetic factors inherited within families as well as patterns of disease in non-smokers, all with the goal of understanding risk factors and mutations consistent with a lung cancer diagnosis.

Dr. Berger’s Project: Genome sequencing tumors in never-smokers

Despite the fact that there are many cases of lung cancer in never-smokers, previous genome sequencing studies have focused primarily on analyzing tumors in people who have smoked in the past or are current smokers. Interestingly, it is from these studies that lung cancer researchers have discovered the most clinically important targets in lung cancer such as EGFR mutations and ALK fusion genes.

It is a fact that lung cancer is the leading cause of death in women. Previous genetic studies of lung cancer have focused mainly on tumors in people with a history of smoking. Dr. Berger, a recipient of the 2017 LCFA/IASLC Lori Monroe Scholarship for Translational Lung Cancer Research, is using the scholarship to perform genome sequencing on lung tumors found in women with no history of smoking who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI). The WHI is coordinated by Fred Hutchinson Cancer in Seattle, WA, and it is one of the largest U.S. prevention studies of its kind, involving more than 161,000 women. In sequencing the entire genome, Dr. Berger is looking to see if she can discover new biomarkers that can be targeted with drugs that will stop the growth of the lung cancer tumor.

“Our existing genetic understanding of lung cancer is all based on studies where the majority of patients were smokers. The goal of this project is to identify new potential drug targets in lung cancer and to better understand the etiology of lung cancer in patients without a smoking history. Genome studies of never-smokers have typically focused only these already known genetic alterations, so we are completely blind to other genetic events that might contribute to disease in never-smokers. Given the fact that lung cancer is the leading cause of death in women, it is important to focus on the fact that not all the important discoveries have been made.”

Encouraging the next generation of researchers studying female mortality from lung cancer

Thanks to her affiliation with LCFA, Dr. Berger has been able to invite members of our Speaker’s Bureau to engage in a Q&A session with her graduate students. She shared what she described as an amazing added benefit:

“We had invited patient advocate Janet Freeman Daily to do a Q&A here at the lab. Afterwards, we all went out to lunch. One of the lab students, who had come to science with a curiosity like mine, told me afterwards that talking with Janet made it clear to her that she could, indeed, make an impact.”

Currently mentoring seven young women in her lab, together they are accomplishing two things of high import to Dr. Berger: they are making meaningful discoveries and helping people.

Leading cause of death in women is being researched by leading women researchers

LCFA is proud to be in a position in which we are able to award significant grants which enable young female researchers the opportunity to make new discoveries about lung cancer – the leading cause of death in women. Meet our team of LCFA-funded lung cancer researchers.

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