On May 1, Mayo Clinic welcomed home Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., for the Celebration of Women in Science Lecture. Dr. Pietenpol is a breast cancer researcher and the executive vice president for research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She is also a native of Rochester and got her start in research during a summer fellowship at Mayo Clinic.

Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D.

In her talk, Dr. Pietenpol reminisced, saying her first experiences in cell biology came in the Mayo Clinic lab of Hal Moses, M.D., with the guidance of the then senior post-doc Edward Leof, Ph.D., currently the Immunity and Fibrosis platform co-leader for Mayo Clinic’s Center for Biomedical Discovery.

It was from this foundation that Dr. Pietenpol says her career was launched.

But, she said, it was not a foregone trajectory. Dr. Pietenpol said there is an element of “pay to play” with research, in the form of clinical service and/or teaching, and without exception, in the time spent grant writing.

“I consider it [science] really an extreme sport,” said Dr. Pietenpol, “incredibly rewarding but an extreme sport, no doubt.” It is on-the-job training even up until today, Dr. Pietenpol said, adding, “You do it with mentorship, that’s the critical thing.”

Mentoring an interest into a career

Throughout her career, Dr. Pietenpol found that mentorship helped her take step after step:

  • She learned to think of discovery through the lens of application to patients.
  • It helped her choose a faculty position.
  • And now her mentorship of others leads them to success.

And Dr. Pietenpol knows about success. In 2012, she was elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for contributions to the field of cancer research.

Investigating triple negative breast cancer

“I knew I wanted to work on a tumor suppressor gene,” Dr. Pietenpol said, of her choice of research area after receiving her doctorate. Her recent work has focused on the tumor suppressor gene p53. Loss of this gene is a common factor in cancers, but oddly enough she said, not in one: Triple-negative breast cancer. And that’s what her lab has been working on for the last decade.

“About 85 percent of breast cancers are defined by the receptor that is expressed and driving the growth of that cancer,” says Dr. Pietenpol. “Triple negative doesn’t have estrogen receptor that is targetable, it doesn’t have HER2 and it doesn’t have progesterone receptor. As a result even though it’s 15 percent of breast cancer [cases], it’s 25 percent of breast cancer deaths.”

So, Dr. Pietenpol’s lab set about determining if the different sub-types of triple negative breast cancer could be parsed to improve treatment. Dr. Pietenpol and her research team have been able to sort triple negative breast cancer into four subtypes based on their samples: Luminal/androgen receptor (16 percent), mesenchymal (24 percent), basal-like 1 (35 percent), and basal-like 2 (22 percent). They’ve also been able to identify treatment theories for some of the subtypes and clarify which types are associated with better or worse survival.

Now, the path forward for Dr. Pietenpol’s lab is to build a database or atlas showing where subtypes of triple negative breast cancer metastasize to, and investigating gene fusions. But she emphasized that moving forward would be impossible without collaboration.

“There’s no way to do any of this without complete collaboration across the basic and clinical research enterprise,” she said. Also from a personal perspective, Dr. Pietenpol emphasized that one person can’t do it all. From working on a variety of projects to managing the compliance and training burden that comes along with research, it’s a team effort.

“Nothing I showed you today was done by a single individual,” she said, and then recalled her time in the lab with Dr. Leof. “I didn’t think I was coming to science to think about things like a team like this,” she said, “but actually we were doing that then.”

She added that the techniques and quantity of data may have changed but the need for teamwork stays the same.

Left to right: Jennifer Westendorf, Ph.D., director of the Mayo Clinic Office of Research Diversity and Inclusion; Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D, Celebration of Women in Science lecturer; Gregory Gores, M.D., executive dean for research