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A Telomere Expert Targeting Breast and Ovarian Cancer
When Titia de Lange joined The Rockefeller
University as an assistant professor in 1990,
she was one of a handful of scientists
worldwide working on telomeres, the
structures at the ends of chromosomes
that are now recognized as essential
cellular guardians against cancer.
“Though the field was unproven, the
University decided to take a chance,”
Dr. de Lange explained. “This early
investment in my laboratory was a
calculated risk.”
More than 20 years later, it is difficult
to find a cancer investigator who is not
combing the scientific literature for
information on telomeres. Biologists who
study the aging process are also keenly
interested, because telomeres act as
cellular “clocks” that shorten every time
a cell divides. When the telomere finally
becomes too short, the cell dies. This
shortening appears to play a key role
in protecting cells against chromosome
damage that can lead to a tumor. In
cancer cells, which grow and divide
without limit, telomeres do not shorten.
The de Lange laboratory has made
many influential discoveries about
telomeres and chromosomes, and
in recent years, the scientists have
undertaken studies with direct relevance
to the understanding and treatment
of breast and ovarian cancer. One
promising investigation is exploring
the relationship between specific
types of chromosomal abnormalities
in pre-cancerous cells and the clinical
outcomes of breast tumors. This
work could lead to prognostic tools
to determine which cancers require
aggressive therapy and, at the same
time, provide a reliable way to identify
patients whose tumors do not require
aggressive treatment.
Dr. de Lange applauds the
initiative and, in particular, the
opportunities it provides for young
women, for whom the situation in
science is “better than it was, but still
not good enough.” Progress, though,
is measurable. When Dr. de Lange
arrived at Rockefeller, there were no
tenured women on the faculty. Today,
she is the University’s Leon Hess
Professor and one of seven women
who are senior professors.
Titia de Lange (left) works with Rockefeller
graduate Megan van Overbeek, who is now a
research associate at Memorial Sloan-Kettering
Cancer Center.