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Laura Gonzalez honored in Phoenix Business Journal's 'Forty Under 40'


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May 13, 2011

Passion for fighting breast cancer spurs young researcher

The Phoenix Business Journal has named ASU Biodesign Institute researcher Laura Gonzalez, Ph.D., to its 2011 “Forty Under 40” list that honors young leaders in the metropolitan area. Gonzalez discovered a suite of genes involved in drug resistance of a common breast cancer treatment.

Gonzalez and her colleagues identified more than 30 genes that contribute to drug resistance in breast cancer, recently published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The findings are important clues that may lead to new breast cancer therapies and diagnostics.

“We found a drug resistant signature that predicts early relapse of breast cancer for women taking tamoxifen,” said Gonzales, who was also named the first-time recipient of the Young Investigator Award of the Expedition Inspiration Fund for Breast Cancer Research in 2009. The award was started in honor of Brenda Williams, M.D., who developed resistance to tamoxifen treatment.

“Right before receiving the Young Investigator Award, I found out that a very close and beloved aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer,” said Gonzalez. “At that particular moment, I realized that my research can make a difference for all women diagnosed with breast cancer who, at some point in their treatment, stop responding to the drug.”

What makes Gonzalez’s findings all the more remarkable is that she is a newcomer to the field of cancer research. “Laura came to my lab late in 2004 after completing her Ph.D., studying proteins in parasites in Mexico,” said Joshua LaBaer, M.D., Ph.D. “At that time, she had never worked with a gene; she had never used a robot; and she knew nothing about breast cancer.”

After hearing Dr. LaBaer speak at a conference in Mexico City, Gonzalez – a pharmacologist – changed her research focus and her resident country to work with LaBaer at the Harvard Proteomics Institute, a field that performs large-scale, global studies of all the proteins made in the human body.

Applying her passion to fight breast cancer through her research studies, Gonzalez has learned the field quickly. Two years ago, she followed her mentor to Arizona State University when LaBaer was recruited to lead the Biodesign Institute’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics. In the state-of-the art facility, Gonzales works with a multidisciplinary research team of 40 with biologists, chemists, engineers and database experts to identify and validate biomarkers---unique molecular fingerprints of disease that could vastly improve health care outcomes.

Using a well-established cell model for breast cancer along with the LaBaer lab’s extensive collection of fully sequenced human genes, Gonzalez performed the largest genetic screen of its kind – testing the ability of 500 regulatory proteins, called kinases, that have been implicated in tumor growth and drug resistance. Gonzalez tested every protein, putting them into breast cancer cells to see if any of them made the cells resistant to the drug tamoxifen, which is one of the most common treatments for breast cancer.

“Ordinarily, given the hundreds of genes she planned to test, this would have been a monumental task,” said Dr. LaBaer. “But Laura had the clever idea to exploit the use of robots and modern information technology, and so she accomplished this in remarkable time.” Next, Gonzalez will focus on unraveling the precise role of the newly identified genes in the fight against breast cancer.

In her Forty Under 40 application, Gonzalez wrote that she admires leaders who advocate for the poor, homeless, and fight for the most basic needs of people. For the approximately one-in-ten women who will get breast cancer in their lifetime, Gonzalez is advocating for them.

For the complete list of the class of 2011, visit:
http://www2.bizjournals.com/phoenix/events/2011/40_under_40/index.html

The Center for Personalized Diagnostics research is supported by grants from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the National Cancer Institute branch of the National Institutes of Health, and a $35 million philanthropic gift from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust.