Dr. Alice Berger receives $200K grant for lung cancer research

Award to fund genome sequencing on lung tumors found in female ‘never-smokers’
Dr. Alice Berger
“The goal of this project is to identify new potential drug targets in lung cancer and to better understand the etiology of lung cancer in patients without a smoking history,” said Dr. Alice Berger of her Lori Monroe Scholarship for Lung Cancer Research. Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Alice Berger, a translational researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has received a $200,000, two-year award — the Lori Monroe Scholarship for Lung Cancer Research — to advance her scientific focus on the genetics of lung cancer in women who have never smoked.

She will use the scholarship, funded by the Lung Cancer Foundation of America and the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer, to perform genome sequencing on lung tumors found in women with no history of smoking who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative. The WHI, coordinated by Fred Hutch, is one of the largest U.S. prevention studies of its kind, involving more than 161,000 women.

Berger will conduct the research in collaboration with Dr. Garnet Anderson, principal investigator of the WHI Clinical Coordinating Center, senior vice president and director of the Public Health Sciences Division and Fred Hutch 40th Anniversary Endowed Chair.

According to Berger, previous genetic studies of lung cancer have focused mainly on tumors from people with a history of smoking; the largest study of never-smokers to date has included only 33 participants.

“In the small number of tumors from never-smokers who have been profiled, we can see that the genetic changes in never-smokers are very different from that of smokers,” said Berger, a researcher in the Hutch’s Human Biology and Public Health Sciences divisions.

“The goal of this project is to identify new potential drug targets in lung cancer and to better understand the etiology of lung cancer in patients without a smoking history,” she said.

Over the course of the WHI study, more than 3,600 women developed lung cancer, including 583 who had never smoked. By studying genetic alterations in lung-tumor tissue from 110 never-smokers in the WHI cohort, Berger aims to increase the number of such sequenced tumors more than three-fold.

“The WHI provides an uncommon and possibly unique opportunity to study the genetic determinants of lung cancer among never-smokers,” Anderson said. “The size of the resource and the strength of the WHI database, which includes detailed information about smoking history and other exposures, offer an opportunity for the WHI to make a timely and significant contribution to our knowledge of lung cancer in the subset of individuals for whom the cause is often a mystery.”

The rate of lung cancer in never-smokers is on the rise; from 1990 through 2013, the percentage of patients with non-small-cell lung cancer who never smoked spiked from 8 percent to 14.9 percent. In 2016 in the U.S., 24 percent of lung cancer cases in women and 17 percent of lung cancer cases in men were in those who never smoked, which is defined as smoking 100 or fewer cigarettes in one’s lifetime.

Berger’s scholarship is named in honor of registered nurse and patient advocate Lorraine “Lori” Gail Monroe, co-founder of the Lung Cancer Foundation of America, who passed away from the disease in 2013 at age 55.

Read more about Fred Hutch achievements and accolades.

Kristen Woodward, a former associate editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, had been in communications at Fred Hutch for more than 20 years. Before that, she was a managing editor at the University of Michigan Health System and a reporter/editor at The Holland Sentinel, a daily in western Michigan. She has received many national awards for health and science writing. She received her B.A. in journalism from Michigan State University. 

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