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In honor of our 30th anniversary, we’re catching up with former grant recipients to hear how their work has impacted kidney cancer care and research.

Dr. Eliezer Van Allen is a medical oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and an Instructor in Medicine at the Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Van Allen received the 2013 ASCO Conquer Cancer Foundation Young Investigators Award, supported by the Kidney Cancer Association. We spoke with him about his research project – Dissecting clinical resistance to PI3K inhibitors in PIK3CA or PTEN-mutant cancers – and what he has been working on recently.

What was the inspiration for your research project and how did it come together?

Dr. Van Allen: We became very interested in this specific molecular subtype of cancers (which span many cancers) that have mutations in PIK3CA and PTEN* and may be susceptible to targeted inhibitors of this pathway. This work was particularly of interest for many of the cancers that I treat clinically, which can have enrichment of these mutations, and therefore may also be studied with these targeted therapies (“PI3K inhibitors”) and develop resistance to those [targeted inhibitor] drugs as well.

What was the outcome of your research project? Have there been further developments following the award period?

Dr. Van Allen: Initially, we had little success in understanding [drug] resistance patterns, and likewise, there were many challenges in determining where these drugs would be successful for patients. However, there have been recent signals of success in multiple cancer types, including breast cancer and prostate cancer with specific genetic events, that may indicate a role not only for these drugs but also for further understanding resistance to these drugs.

 How would you say your research project contributed to the field? 

Dr. Van Allen: We performed some of the earliest molecular characterizations of targeted therapy treatment resistance in with these agents, which we hope will enable further studies now that these drugs are more widely used.

What is most exciting or significant about your research?

Dr. Van Allen: Some patients with kidney cancer have mutations in genes that may benefit from PI3K inhibitors, although more clinical studies are needed. Our work is intended to think ahead, to what may happen after that resistance occurs, and as a result we hope our work will enable future therapies for these patients.

Did this research project impact your approach to patient care? 

Dr. Van Allen: This research further instilled in me the concept that each patient is truly unique, naturally at a personal level, but also in terms of the genetics of the tumors, and as a result requires very careful consideration.

What is your research focus now? 

Dr. Van Allen: I now run a research lab that focuses on studying these precision oncology approaches, both within kidney cancer and broadly across many cancer types. I am extremely grateful for the support early on in my career, which I can directly point to empowering me to pursue the work I am doing now and hopefully impact patient care in many positive ways.

Is there anything else you’d like patients and families to know about the impacts of your work?

Dr. Van Allen: I would want to thank the patients and their families for their extraordinary support and engagement with KCA – this work is vital to improving patient care and inspiring as a researcher in this field.

*PIK3CA is a gene that encodes a lipid involved in signaling pathways. The pathways influence cellular functions like growth, death, and proliferation.
*PTEN is a gene that provides instructions for making an enzyme found in almost every tissue in the body. The enzyme is a tumor suppressor and regulates cell division.

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