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Accelerating Cancer Research
Story by Nichole Brophy

It was during her final year at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, that Dr. Heather Cunliffe, head of the Breast and Ovarian Cancer Research Unit at TGen, discovered the worlds of molecular biology and biochemistry. Cunliffe's dedication to academics stemmed from an homage to her father, who passed away prior to her freshman year of college.

"He had always wanted me to go to university, and I pushed myself knowing that's what he would have wanted," Cunliffe, 39, says. As the only member of her immediate family to pursue a higher education, Cunliffe didn't stop at a bachelor's degree. Before long, she had enrolled at the prestigious University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, in pursuit of a Ph.D.

While studying for her Ph.D., Cunliffe attended a conference held by Jeffrey Trent, the current president and founder of TGen. Trent's presentation on genomic technologies and their impact on disease management for cancer patients motivated Cunliffe. She applied and was accepted as a postdoctorate fellow at his laboratory at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, M.D.

In 2004, Cunliffe was invited to join TGen to focus on diseases associated with women's health. "Both of my grandmothers passed away from breast cancer, and my husband's mother passed away from ovarian cancer," Cunliffe says. "So that was my driving force as to which cancer types I wanted to study. I launched the Breast and Ovarian Cancer Research Unit because those were the two major cancer types that have a lot of similarities because of the hormonal component."

Aside from scheduling her 12-hour days to accommodate collaborating with her staff, writing grants to the federal government and preparing manuscripts, Cunliffe also spends a generous amount of time aiding women's interest and women's networking groups. The Young Women's Christian Association, Salt River-Pima women's interest network, Charter 100, Women's Junior League, Susan G. Koman Breast Cancer Foundation and the American Cancer Society are just a few organizations for which Cunliffe advocates.

Possessing a firm belief in harnessing the scientific ability thriving within our state's master's and Ph.D. students, Cunliffe also serves as adjunct faculty for ASU's School of Life Sciences. "That is a huge passion of mine because that is where the talent is; that is the pivot point of many cutting-edge research laboratories."

Currently, Cunliffe's focus is leading her team of researchers to discover more accurate diagnostic and prognostic tests for breast and ovarian cancer patients. Enhancing the precision of such tests will help doctors determine the most impactful course of cancer treatment on a patient-by-patient basis. Her findings are aided by TGen's revolutionary implementation of what are known as "research accelerators." These accelerators take her unit's research and develop therapeutic biomarkers that can be used clinically, as fast as humanly possible.

"What we are trying to do is take those discoveries and hand them off to our accelerator partners with the knowledge and confidence that they are actually going to turn it into something that will help a large number of [cancer patients,]" Cunliffe says. "That is a dream come true for someone in my situation."