Traci Lyons, PhD

A successful early-career scientist will apply for many grants and even win a few, often first from foundations and associations, perhaps from programs designed to promote the training of young researchers, and eventually from the National Institutes of Health to fund specific projects, starting small and (hopefully) increasing in size and scope. Traci Lyons, PhD, investigator at the CU Cancer Center and assistant professor at the CU School of Medicine is officially no longer one of these early-career scientists. With the recent award of a prestigious National Cancer Institute R01 grant with funding of $228,500 each year for five years, Dr. Lyons has now established herself as a nationally recognized cancer researcher, the head of her own laboratory.

“This is the one,” she says. “For me, it means I’ve arrived. It also means I get to keep my job for another five years!”

The grant, along with a large 4-year Research Scholar Grant, awarded earlier this year from the American Cancer Society (ACS), will allow Lyons and her staff to continue their research into causes and possible treatments for postpartum breast cancer, those cancers associated with changes in the breast due to pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and the process of involution that transforms the breast once infants are weaned.

Lyons remembers that on previous grant applications, reviewers often cited her work with postpartum breast cancers as a negative – “they would say it’s such a niche area, it’s so rare,” Lyons says. “For ten years we’ve been pushing the idea that not only are postpartum breast cancers not rare, but they are also especially metastatic and deadly.”

On the recent R01 grant and also Lyon’s grant from the ACS, reviewers listed her area of research with postpartum breast cancer as a positive and not a negative.

“We’ve done it. We’ve finally done it. We’ve finally shown this is important,” Lyons says.

By “we” Lyons means the community of scientific mentors and collaborators she has worked with in Colorado, first as a PhD student, then as a postdoc, then as a junior faculty member and now as an assistant professor of Medical Oncology at the CU School of Medicine.

One of these mentors has been Ginger Borges, MD, MMSc, director of the Breast Cancer Research Program and Young Women’s Breast Cancer Translational Program at the University of Colorado Cancer Center.

“For all of our research, for all of us, this R01 is a great celebration,” Lyons says.

Lyons’ commitment to Colorado throughout her training and early work goes against the normal trajectory of a career in science, in which students have been encouraged to spread their study and training across institutions.

“People told me I’d never get an R01 staying in the same place for PhD, postdoc and junior faculty,” Lyons says. “This grant shows that it’s possible to have the life you want, in the place you love, without sacrificing your career to do it.”

Lyons’ work has already started to identify molecular mechanisms that make postpartum breast cancers different than most others.

“In previous studies, we identified a molecule involved in early brain development that is accidentally turned on in many of these postpartum breast cancers. The R01 will let me test whether this molecule only marks these dangerous cancers or is in fact causing these cancers,” Lyons says. While Lyons fills in the science, she is also in talks with industry to start developing treatments targeting this molecule that could help young women with breast cancer.

In fact, when Lyons and colleagues looked at all breast cancers, they found that the same molecule, is marker of poor prognosis, whether or not the breast cancer was associated with the postpartum period. In this way, Lyons points out that studying postpartum cancers may offer clues that help us understand in general why some breast cancers are more aggressive than others.

“It’s like postpartum breast cancer is a model. We may be able to take what we learn and apply it to all breast cancer,” Lyons says.

This is a story of the arrival of a homegrown scientist on the national scene. It is a story of validating a line of research that was once seen as too small to be a priority. And it is the story of discoveries that could lead to new treatments against aggressive forms of breast cancer, treatments that Lyons now has the resources to pursue.

“It’s a validation that others think we know what we’re doing,” Lyons says.