Meet Dr. Boyle
Dr. Theresa Boyle is a pathologist – a self-described doctor’s doctor. Her role is to analyze and interpret biopsied tissue samples for thoracic oncologists and surgeons to develop patient treatment plans. Her career at Moffitt Cancer Center began two and a half years ago and she divides her efforts between the Thoracic and Pathology Departments. Dr. Eric Haura, leader of the Lung Cancer Center of Excellence, is one of her mentors. Boyle believes there is a big need to identify and study biomarkers. The goals in cancer research include discovering biomarkers that can be used to identify underlying processes leading to more effective treatments.
Pathology is like detective work. Normally the body’s immune system attacks invaders like tumor cells, but cancer likes to hide. Immunotherapy is able to “unmask the tumor,” explains Boyle. There is a sub-set of people who respond and get better with current lung cancer treatments, however there are many who don’t. Dr. Boyle wants to focus on the underlying reasons some patients don’t experience positive outcomes from these treatments.
She has developed an interest in mass spectrometry which allows researchers to view proteins in a tumor on a grand scale. The hypothesis which awarded Boyle the second Barbara Bauer Research Grant in honor of Timothy Belt asked,
“Is it feasible to develop technology to look at all of the markers associated with cancer?”
She acknowledges that this is a vast undertaking and comments, “If it were easy everyone would be doing it.”
The Ripple Effect
Dr. Boyle discussed the impact of being chosen to receive The Barbara Bauer Innovative Lung Cancer Research Grant which made her principal investigator of a grant project for the first time in her career. She has participated in a number of research projects and clinical trials but appreciates the intellectual challenge of taking the lead. Perhaps her enthusiasm is contagious. Kiah Bowers, a member of the Koomen mass spectrometry core, says this project is her favorite because it is so exploratory and challenging in a meaningful way.
The grant enabled Boyle to create a pilot protocol using 30 samples dedicated to her research study. She explained that many times there isn’t much tissue left from patient samples for research purposes. Ten of these samples had already been tested using staining techniques to determine protein content. For the other 20 samples she is utilizing mass spectrometry to get a closer look at the immune protein profile of tissue from patients treated with immunotherapy to learn why they did or did not respond to the drug. Her second mentor, Dr. John Koomen, Director of Mass Spectrometry at Moffitt, was a natural fit for Boyle’s project thanks to her choice of technology.
“Without this funding I would never have met Dr. Koomen and now we meet once a week,” she says.Dr Boyle
Recently Dr. Koomen encouraged Boyle to write an abstract for a conference in California – “Mass Spectrometry Applied to Clinical Labs.” Her abstract was accepted, and she received an all-expense paid invitation to present her project at the conference attended by over one thousand colleagues. Boyle was thrilled to be there (in spite of becoming terribly ill with the flu) and managed to participate in basic courses about mass spectrometry before getting sick. She plans to return to present more results about this project next year.
Boyle’s research is ongoing thanks to additional funding from the Lung Cancer Center of Excellence. Dr. Lary Robinson, co-founder of Prelude to a Cure, spoke at a fundraiser about the importance of cultivating seed grants which allow researchers to parlay their findings into higher levels of support.
Dr. Boyle is getting closer to testing patient samples again armed with what she learned from the first round. Stay tuned.
What makes Moffitt Special?
Boyle talked about what it feels like to be a member of Florida’s only NCI designated Comprehensive Cancer Center by sharing that she “has never before felt such team spirit.” We discussed the sometimes-competitive nature of scientific research and she assures me that everyone at Moffitt is clear that, “The enemy is cancer, not other colleagues.”
There is a sense of pride and urgency that goes along with Moffitt’s dual mission of providing outstanding patient care while participating in cutting edge research. The focus is always on “getting to work” finding answers to get closer to a cure. Boyle is quick to point out the tremendous support Moffitt receives from the Tampa Bay community as another source of inspiration to continue their pursuits.
It takes time and money to develop successful treatments like immunotherapy and she’s grateful to work in an environment that understands this. Moffitt doctors use conservative approaches mixed with open mindedness about new technologies.
Lung Cancer Research Challenges
Two of the greatest challenges researchers face today are STILL the smoking stigma associated with this deadly disease and the huge disparity between funding/awareness devoted to lung versus other forms of cancer. The stark reality is that lung cancer remains the number one cancer killer of men and women in the United States while receiving the least amount of funding for research and awareness campaigns. There is plenty of room for addressing this imbalance and Prelude to a Cure is committed to providing support for scientists working hard to find innovative ways to improve patient outcomes while moving toward a cure.
Theresa Boyle believes the more people know, the more they will care. “Every droplet makes a difference.”
Interview conducted with Dr. Theresa Boyle by Prelude to a Cure Board Member Kathryn King