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Laura Tafe: Biomarker Discovery and Translation

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Recommended by: Gregory Tsongalis, Dartmouth Medical School

As both a surgical and a molecular pathologist, Dartmouth's Laura Tafe is poised to bring the fruits of translational research into the clinic. While she has done many assay validations, her current focus is on identifying biomarkers, particularly for cancer, that can be used in the clinical lab.

One of her new projects aims to find microRNAs associated with head and neck squamous cell carcinomas. Using NanoString's technology — which she plans to couple with TaqMan assays — Tafe is comparing miRNA expression patterns in the carcinomas to patients' normal tissue. From that, she says she hopes to find a profile that will indicate whether or not a particular patient is at higher risk for developing metastases. "Ultimately, it'd be great to test the primary tumor and say that this person is probably more likely to develop a metastasis. Then we could treat them more aggressively upfront before they metastasize," Tafe says.

For her research, she says that Greg Tsongalis has been one of her biggest mentors, teaching her a number of 'lessons.' "One is to keep thinking of new ideas and not be afraid to pursue them, and along the way, you'll often get a lot of support from people as you explain your ideas and you can get colleagues and collaborators to get behind you and support your efforts," Tafe says.

Looking ahead

Tafe says that translational research will only continue to grow and develop as a field, and that more targeted therapeutics will become available. "There's more and more interest in identifying biomarkers in patients with carcinomas particularly that can be used as targets for these targeted therapeutic agents," she says. "I expect that that field will just continue to grow and develop and flourish. Moving forward, that's what we are going to see a lot of."

And the Nobel goes to…

If she were to receive the prize, Tafe would like it to be for better diagnosing and personalizing cancer patient care. "I'd like to win it for developing an assay that you could put a piece of tumor into and it would give you prognostic biomarker information that you could determine the prognosis of the patient and also would give you information on what targeted therapeutics would work for that patient to really individualize patient-by-patient care," she says.

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