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How Losing Her Mother to Cancer Led to a Career in Research


Read Time: 6 minutes
Author: K-T Varley, PhD

K-T Varley in lab
Katherine (K-T) Varley, PhD

Katherine (K-T) Varley, PhD, is an investigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute and an assistant professor in the Department of Oncological Sciences at the University of Utah. She leads the Varley Lab, which studies breast and ovarian cancer. Here, K-T shares the very personal reason why she dedicates her life’s work to cancer research. 

Why I Became a Cancer Researcher

When I was 15 years old, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was a teacher who approached everything in life as an opportunity to learn. She brought me to her medical appointments and we’d ask: Why did she develop breast cancer? Why do treatments make her so sick? Will she be okay?

Her doctors were kind and answered many of our questions, but told us the answers to some of our questions were unknown. That was a huge surprise to me. How could something so important be unknown? 

When my mother’s breast cancer recurred a couple of years later, we were shocked. Our questions became more educated and intense, but we received fewer answers. How did cells from her early-stage tumor dodge surgery, survive chemotherapy, and metastasize [spread] so quickly? Why didn’t the chemo work for her when it had worked for so many others?  While she rode the rollercoaster of treatment, remission, and recurrence, I went to college to learn how to answer these questions.

Two photos- K-T Varley and her mother at graduation and her mom sitting by some flowers

Seeking Answers, from Undergraduate to Doctor

While I was an undergraduate at Cornell, two major scientific breakthroughs occurred. The human genome was sequenced and the first cancer drug designed to target a DNA mutation was approved by the FDA. I realized that innovation was revolutionizing treatment. I immersed myself in genetics, mathematics, and computer science to learn the skills needed to analyze genome-scale data.

While attending Washington University School of Medicine for graduate school, I developed new genomics technology to try and accelerate the way we answer questions about breast cancer.  

In the middle of my PhD thesis research, my mother’s cancer recurred and she passed away. When I graduated, I was proud to be able to address a few of the questions my mother and I had asked. I was committed to a career focused on understanding why patient outcomes can be so different. I start every day with the question that guides my research: How do we identify the best treatment for each patient?

What Working at Huntsman Cancer Institute Means to Me

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to lead a research lab because I knew I would be surrounded by passionate, brilliant people who were committed to the same goal: improving the lives of people affected by cancer.

The organization is unique because it is engineered to incentivize patient-driven, collaborative studies. We have support for enrolling patients in clinical studies, storing specimens, and maintaining medical records for long-term research studies. At most institutions, it is difficult for researchers to collaborate effectively. Here, the buildings are designed to bridge the hospital and research labs so everyone can easily meet and tackle challenges—even over lunch.

Compared with other comprehensive cancer centers, we at Huntsman Cancer Institute are young and small. However, the vision, mission, and principles have been there from the beginning. Because of that, we have a tremendous impact on cancer research and are driving improvements in patient care nationally. Through a united effort, we are paving the way toward a future without cancer.

K-T Varley in lab

My Vision of a Future Without Cancer

I like to imagine a future where a cancer diagnosis isn’t scary or disruptive. I use that vision to guide my lab’s research.

Using Blood Tests to Detect Cancer

I imagine that everyone has access to a yearly blood test that detects cancer early. My lab is one of many working on tests that can detect DNA from a tumor in a person’s blood. We analyzed thousands of tumor genomes and identified hundreds of cancer-specific biomarkers that occur very early in tumor formation. We are currently optimizing a test that measures these markers in DNA. In 2023, we will begin analyzing blood samples to determine if this blood test is sensitive enough to detect cancer in patients. If we can detect cancer at its earliest stages when treatments are simplest and most effective, many lives will be saved.

Personalizing Cancer Treatment

I also imagine testing a biopsy to determine which treatment is best for a patient. My lab has been working to develop a test for women with triple-negative breast cancer who are all undergoing aggressive chemotherapy. We analyzed hundreds of patients and learned that some have genes that activate immune cells to keep the tumor from spreading. We found that these women naturally have a good prognosis and may be able to safely reduce or avoid chemotherapy. We also learned that some women have tumors that grow aggressively and often recur even after intense chemotherapy. We needed a new treatment strategy for them. We discovered a combination of targeted therapies could change the tumor’s gene expression and slow its growth. We are currently working with ARUP so we can use it in a clinical trial. We are excited to work towards a future where every patient’s treatment is personalized and chemotherapy is a relic.

Stopping Cancer Metastasis

Finally, I envision that even though some sneaky tumor cells might develop resistance to our initial treatment, we will be ready to detect them with another therapy before they cause incurable metastasis. By using the blood test to detect cancer recurrence early, we want to find a window to treat those evasive cells before they spread. Using cutting-edge genomics technologies sensitive enough to find tumor cells hiding in organs, we can learn how they survived the initial treatment and how to target them.

Additionally, my collaborators in the Welm Labs can grow a patient’s tumor in the lab and treat it with the same medicines the patient received. This allows us to watch a tumor become resistant, analyze its genome, and identify the optimal second therapy. This is the most innovative, challenging, and collaborative research that my lab conducts. We are excited that these studies may help us stay one step ahead of cancer recurrence.

Why Donations to Cancer Research Are Important

Donations play a critical role in advancing research. While grant funding is important for maintaining progress in research, grants are only awarded for two- to five-year periods. Researchers have to limit the scope of grant-funded research to short-term goals that will have a high likelihood of success during a small window of time. Many important questions can’t be answered in these incremental sprints. The steady support of donations is critical to advancing research that seeks to solve larger challenges, which take time.

Developing new technologies to identify biomarkers or create new therapies takes many years. For example, breast cancer recurrence often happens five to 20 years after women have completed their initial treatment. If my team was awarded a grant to identify biomarkers in patients, we would have needed financial support for the last 20 years to maintain the original samples and clinical data.

The generous support of donors is critical in tackling larger challenges—revolutionizing care and eradicating cancer. We need to be able to conduct studies that evaluate personalized treatments designed to produce long-term cures.

What Inspires Me

I think my mother would appreciate knowing her struggle with cancer inspires me and my team to find the best treatment for each patient. She would appreciate that I pass her teaching lessons on to my trainees: “Every challenge in life is an opportunity to learn. Keep asking questions.”

To all the parents and children sitting in oncologist offices today, please know we are here searching for answers to your questions.

Cancer touches all of us.