Professor of Biomedical Engineering Deb Kelly hopes to 'outsmart breast cancer'

Jamie Oberdick
October 22, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. One of the pioneering researchers in the fight against breast cancer is Deb Kelly, professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Center for Structural Oncology at Penn State. 

Kelly developed structural oncology several years ago while at Virginia Tech as a new area of cancer research. It focuses on unraveling the underpinnings of cancer-causing processes through the study at the atomic scale of the proteins in cancerous cells. Kelly and her team’s research goal is beating cancer through a better understanding of it. As she put it, her team is working to figure out why “cancer keeps outsmarting us.”

What drove your interest in breast cancer research?

Deb Kelly (DK): Breast cancer strikes fear in the heart of patients and their family members. Hereditary breast cancer is particularly unnerving due to its tendency to return after treatment. I’ve had family members afflicted by this disease and I know firsthand that cancer does not discriminate. It imparts permanent change in the lives of survivors. These experiences shaped my interest and desire to ease the disease burden through research.

What does your breast cancer-related research entail? 

DK: Our research focuses on understanding the molecular culprits of BRCA1-related breast cancer. BRCA1 is the breast cancer susceptibility protein. We use state-of-the-art imaging resources to see how BRCA1 looks and behaves differently in cancer cells compared to healthy cells. We expect to uncover new hidden targets in these aggressive cancers to inform more effective treatment options.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?  

DK: The development of our new Center for Structural Oncology (CSO) at Penn State. The mission of the CSO is to engineer new molecular paradigms to create a world without cancer.

Where do you see your research expanding to in the coming years?

DK: We are expanding our BRCA1 studies beyond breast cancer. We hope to clarify BRCA1’s role in aggressive brain and pancreatic cancers. BRCA1 contributes to these diseases but how it operates in these other tissues is unclear. Just as cancer is relentless and resourceful, researchers need the same mindset to tirelessly attack the disease wherever it turns up in the body.

Anything else you would like to add about your work?

DK: To learn more about our efforts, check out the information on the Kelly Lab website or follow news of our discoveries on Twitter: @DebKellyLab and @PennStateBME.  

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 23, 2019