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Author: Shreya Goel, PhD
Shreya Goel, PhD, is a Huntsman Cancer Institute researcher and an assistant professor of molecular pharmaceutics at the University of Utah. Her lab focuses on advancing cancer care through imaging, a tool doctors use to assess whether a patient is responding to treatment.
Why I Became a Cancer Researcher
For a start, cancer research is really cool and interesting. Although we have made significant progress in improving lives affected by cancer, there is room for scientific discovery. The thrill of that chase—discovering something, and for a while, being the only person to know about it—is exhilarating. Importantly, there is a strong motivation that even the most fundamental science has real-life implications and can someday make a profound difference for people with cancer.
During my undergraduate time in bioengineering, I was fortunate enough to be able to explore various areas of research through internships and fellowships. I naturally gravitated toward cancer research during my PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I continued its pursuit during my postdoctoral fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center, attracted by the fact that there were so many unanswered questions about the disease. Can we develop tools to identify the earliest cancer lesions in the body? Can we identify patients who will respond to treatment? Can we identify patients who stop responding to treatment, and thus, minimize the side effects from unnecessary therapies? Importantly, can we do this noninvasively, causing minimal pain to the patients?
While new and effective therapies continue to be discovered, early and precise detection of cancer and treatment resistance remains elusive. This drives the research in our lab. The fact that there are no good answers to any of these questions, motivates us to push the boundaries of cancer research.
What Working at Huntsman Cancer Institute Means to Me
I have been lucky to have the support of Huntsman Cancer Institute from the very beginning of my career as a tenure-track assistant professor. Coming to a new place with its own culture and not knowing people can be intimidating, on top of all the anxieties of starting a research lab from scratch. However, the community here and the University of Utah is structured in a way that allows newcomers to integrate into the culture, seamlessly and quickly. The people are collaborative and receptive to new ideas—not only researchers like myself, but also oncologists and physicians. Everyone is focused on doing the best they can for our cancer patients. And that passion extends to supporting innovative and impactful research and researchers. I am thrilled to be a part of this community.
How Cancer Is Personal to Me
Like many others, I have lost loved ones to cancer. I recently lost close friends and have seen their families fall apart from grief. It can really get to you, especially as a cancer researcher. At the same time, it is why we must continue. I believe that we are not fighting a losing battle, and I am confident that one day, we will win.
Advancing Cancer Care Through Imaging
I am fascinated by all things imaging. The ability to observe molecular events in a living being and transform that knowledge into actionable markers to guide cancer care is quite exciting. We are currently focused on developing a safe and noninvasive method called photoacoustic imaging, that combines light and sound to peer deep inside the body without unnecessary biopsies or toxic agents. We are using this to track how specific features of cancer change as the disease progresses and the differences between benign and malignant lesions. We can also track how these features change in response to therapies and whether it could help us identify tumors that respond to treatment and those that do not. This can have a powerful impact on cancer care.
Because the imaging technology is so safe, we are especially interested in implementing it in two areas:
- Breast cancer—we can follow the molecular changes in a lesion and catch it early if it turns aggressive.
- Childhood cancer—we can determine whether patients are responding to therapy early on without exposing them to excessive radiological imaging.
We hope this will save cancer patients from unnecessary, and often toxic, therapies that do not work. Particularly in children, many treatment-related side effects can last a lifetime and severely impact their quality of life, even when the cancer is cured.
Why Donations to Cancer Research Are Important
Funding for research is incredibly important, both from federal and private sources. It allows us to take risks to develop innovative technologies and make discoveries that can be infused back into our communities in the form of new treatments and diagnostics.
Funding from private donations and foundations has been a financial and psychological blessing for our budding young lab. Federal funding typically takes time. It’s important to receive early encouragement to pursue the science we love. It also allows us to pursue high-risk, high-reward projects, like developing safe pediatric imaging technology. I was lucky to find generous funding through private foundations, like 5 for The Fight, within the first year of starting my independent lab. It has energized and encouraged my lab members. I am very grateful for that.
What Inspires Me
We have made so much consistent progress in cancer care, yet there is so much more to do. Meeting people who have faced this disease in my personal and professional life, has been incredibly humbling and inspiring at the same time. It amazes me, that despite going through a very difficult process, patients are hopeful for the future and have faith in the work we do. It drives home the point that all research, whether fundamental or translational, has real-life implications.