Published: 30 April 2019

Fellowship offers a broader perspective on breast cancer research

A HRB Cancer Prevention Fellowship at the National Cancer Institute in the USA gave Dr Maeve Mullooly the opportunity to build her research programme in studies that aim to understand risk factors for breast cancer using integrative epidemiology approaches. She encourages eligible researchers interested in cancer prevention to apply to the programme. She talks to Dr Claire O'Connell.

Maeve Mullooly
Dr Maeve Mullooly

Travel broadens the mind, and it can also expand your career in research. For Dr Maeve Mullooly, a three-year cancer prevention fellowship at the National Cancer Institute in Rockville, Maryland, has given her new perspectives on her work that investigates factors contributing to the development of breast cancer. The Cancer Prevention Fellowship Programme is a comprehensive postdoctoral training programme collaboratively supported by the HRB and the National Cancer Institute. It offers early-career researchers in Ireland the opportunity to become involved in mentored research and develop their knowledge and skills in the principles and practice of cancer prevention and control, and it gave Maeve the chance to build her expertise and develop new multidisciplinary cancer prevention studies and collaborations.

Breast cancer risks

‘My research aims to understand the role of different risk factors for breast cancer’, explains Maeve. She recently completed her final year of the Programme, which allowed her the opportunity to reintegrate back to an Irish research setting where she now works as a Research Fellow in the Division of Population Health Sciences at the Royal College of Surgeons. ‘I am particularly interested in how breast cancer risk factors can influence the growth and development of tumours and how this influence relates to differences we see at the clinical level among women with breast cancer following diagnosis. We are also investigating how we can use this information about risk to identify women who are more likely to develop breast cancer’.

Recently, Maeve has been investigating how dense breast tissue influences risk of breast cancer. Breast density refers to the amount of fibroglandular tissue in the breast. Dense breast tissue shows up on a mammogram image as white, relative to fatty tissue which appears dark. ‘We know there is a strong relationship between high levels of breast density and increased breast cancer risk, but we need to understand the mechanisms driving these associations’, says Maeve.

One reason could be because early signs of cancer may be more difficult to determine in dense breasts - the dense tissue may mask their appearance on mammograms. Another potential reason is the underlying biological role of the breast tissue microenvironment. To find out more, Maeve is continuing her work with researchers at the National Cancer Institute, where she is carrying out studies that are integrating breast radiology images and breast tissue biospecimens from women who have developed high risk premalignant and malignant (cancerous) lesions. ‘These studies use a number of approaches to investigate the molecular underpinnings of breast density and how the molecular components of the breast tissue microenvironment may contribute to tumour development’, she explains.

Building research and skills

Maeve’s work involves combining population health, which is what we can learn from analysing diseases among large groups of people, with studies at the biological and cellular level. She was able to forge and build these skills during her time on the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Programme.

‘The HRB has played a vital role in my training to date. Thanks to the HRB, I was afforded the opportunity to complete a Masters in Public Health before going to the US. This provided the epidemiology and public health foundations which enabled me to combine laboratory and population health science within the fellowship. The support from the HRB and the Irish Cancer Society also allowed me to return home and continue this work in Ireland’, says Maeve. ‘I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work at the National Cancer Institute. The collaboration between the HRB and National Cancer Institute has been in place for many years and there is a great relationship thanks to the many previous fellows who participated in the programme, and so they are always very interested and keen to work with Irish collaborators’.

While in the US, Maeve worked on a collaborative project between the National Cancer Institute and the National Cancer Registry of Ireland, which showed that incidence of the most common sub-type of breast cancer is increasing in Ireland. ‘These findings highlight the need for more prevention strategies’, she explains.

A key component of the Fellowship is the opportunity to engage in mentored research. Maeve worked on her studies with Dr Gretchen Gierach (Senior Investigator and Deputy Chief, Integrative Tumour Epidemiology Branch, Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics) and Professor Mark Sherman (former Chief of the Breast and Gynecological Cancer Research Group, Division of Cancer Prevention, now Professor of Epidemiology, Mayo Clinic), where she developed research as well as programme management skills.

‘Both Dr Gierach and Professor Sherman are great mentors to me and have provided me with ample opportunities to become involved in different research studies across the cancer prevention spectrum as well as professional development opportunities’, says Maeve. ‘I was able to conduct primary data analysis, while expanding other project management skillsets that are vital to the development of new research studies, including learning how to secure grants, leadership skills, and skills in managing a team and a research budget. They also provided me the opportunity to work with many leading international researchers. I would encourage researchers interested in cancer prevention to apply to the programme so they can have these opportunities too’.

Bigger picture in mind

Being a researcher is hard work, but Maeve enjoys the variety of population health projects she works on and collaborating with multidisciplinary national and international researchers from diverse backgrounds. ‘Every project is different and no day is the same, I am always learning’, she says ‘what drives me is the thought of understanding how tumours evolve and develop, so that this knowledge can be leveraged to contribute to new ways to prevent cancers’.

And to get a break, Maeve returns home to Roscommon and goes back to her agricultural roots where her father runs a successful pedigree farm. ‘I help out there as often as he can, particularly during the summer season where we exhibit at agricultural shows, both locally and nationally’, she says. ‘I enjoy the camaraderie among the community and mostly getting out in the fresh air. It’s good for both the body and mind’.