Discoveries Magazine


The Cure Seeker

Photograph: Al Cuizon

NAME: Heather L. McArthur, MD , Medical Director, Breast Oncology, Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, Cedars-Sinai breast cancer foe

[ Global research doyenne, work-life balance agnostic ]

One in eight women (and 1 in 1,000 men) will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. Heather L. McArthur, MD, will not rest until she has pushed her field as close to a cure as humanly—and scientifically—possible. “The potential for impact in breast oncology is tremendous,” she says. “Seeing so many young women being diagnosed stirs me to want to make their outlook better.”

McArthur was the lead investigator on the first research effort to apply immune-boosting strategies with curative intent in breast cancer. Since that endeavor launched in 2011, other investigators have embraced the approach and studies have proliferated. McArthur now leads related clinical trials at Cedars-Sinai that have a global impact.

“Breast cancer biology is unique to each person. A woman’s tumor has its own distinctive features, including gene mutation profiles,” she says. Immune therapy can exploit these tumor specific biological markers by priming immune cells to recognize them. McArthur’s approach focuses on training the immune system to “remember” women’s tumor-specific information—so if a patient’s cancer returns, her body can eradicate it.

Cancer cells are expert at hiding from the immune system, but studies show that destroying a tumor exposes it, activating critical tumor-specific immune cells. McArthur and her colleagues demolish tumor tissue with radiation or cryoablation (freezing) to break it down into tiny fragments that are more easily digested by the immune system. Cedars-Sinai investigators are studying the combination of destructive methods with immune therapy to deliver a one-two punch to tumors. “We believe strongly that, with these innovative strategies, we can bring long-term immunity to patients with breast cancer,” McArthur says.

“It’s a tremendous honor and a privilege to be tumorbrought into someone’s life when they are in that incredibly vulnerable moment of facing their mortality with newly diagnosed cancer,” she says. “You can’t, as an oncologist, have an off day.”

With three sons under the age of 8, a (“very supportive!”) husband, and a career that encompasses patient care, research leadership, medical education, and travel, McArthur works hard to find time to play. “Work-life balance doesn’t happen naturally,” she says. A scheduled weekly tennis lesson helps her inch closer to equilibrium.

Breast cancer is really “thousands of diseases,” so a single strategy for a cure is unlikely. “My hope is that the right rational combinations of therapies will allow for de-escalation of the toxic chemotherapy backbones that we currently rely on,” McArthur says. “So my goal? Early retirement because we’ve cured breast cancer. I’m incredibly optimistic.”


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