Coriell Institute for Medical Research Scientist Receives Grant to Find Drivers of Breast Cancer


Shoghag Panjarian, PhD, a research scientist at the Coriell Institute for Medical Research, has been awarded a grant from the W. W. Smith Charitable Trust to support her search for epigenetic factors that contribute to the development and growth of breast cancer.

“We’ve learned a great deal about the causes of breast cancer in recent years, but so far, only a small number of mutated genes are known to contribute to breast cancer,” Dr. Panjarian said. “The more we know about the genetic and epigenetic causes of breast cancer, the better equipped we will be to develop new tools for diagnosis and better treatments for the disease.”

“Dr. Panjarian is an especially talented researcher with a passion for uncovering the epigenetic causes of breast cancer,” said Jean-Pierre Issa, MD, Coriell’s President and CEO. “This generous support from the W. W. Smith Charitable Trust will allow her to continue her hunt for these cancer drivers and promises to bolster our understanding of breast cancer’s underlying causes.”

Cancer arises when cells with damaged genes are not repaired and/or the regulation of gene expression is malfunctioning. This regulatory program of turning genes on or off is called epigenetics. Normally, gene expression is very carefully controlled, but when the on and off mechanism is deregulated, cancer can arise. For example, tumor suppressor genes or the “good” genes that prevent the growth of cancer can be switched off . These off genes are referred to as cancer drivers, because when they’re off, they accelerate cancer development.

In her work, Dr. Panjarian has identified potential epigenetic drivers using biology-specific data science tools. Experimentally, she has shown that when these genes are switched back on, the growth of breast cancer cells slows. 

With the research funding from W.W. Smith Charitable Trust, Dr. Panjarian will be expanding her work to explore synthetic lethality. When these epigenetic driver genes are switched off, breast cancer cells depend on other genes with similar functions to be able to survive. 

When those genes, the original and the alternative, are targeted in tandem with two different epigenetic drugs, it’s possible to effectively kill the breast cancer cells in what’s known as synthetic lethality, a novel approach to treating breast cancer which holds great promise.

About the Coriell Institute for Medical Research

Founded in 1953, the Coriell Institute for Medical Research is a nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving human health through biomedical research. Coriell scientists lead research in personalized medicine, cancer biology, epigenetics, and the genomics of opioid use disorder. Coriell also hosts one of the world's leading biobanks—comprised of collections for the National Institutes of Health, disease foundations and private clients—and distributes biological samples and offers research and biobanking services to scientists around the globe. To facilitate drug discovery and disease study, the Institute also develops and distributes collections of induced pluripotent stem cells. For more information, visit

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