“When I was a young girl playing with my chemistry set and toy stethoscope, I never imagined this,” says Charis Eng, MD, PhD, Chair of the Genomic Medicine Institute and Director of the Center for Personalized Genetic Healthcare at Cleveland Clinic.
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Dr. Eng, who also is an American Cancer Society Clinical Research Professor, received the American Cancer Society’s Medal of Honor, the organization’s highest award, on October 18, 2018, in Washington, D.C. She was honored alongside four others who also “have made advances of unique magnitude in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, and prevention of cancer and whose professional careers have engendered widespread feelings of admiration and respect.”
This year’s recipients include former Vice President Joe Biden. Past recipients include former President George H.W. Bush, Senator Ted Kennedy, cancer researcher Judah Folkman and U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
Dr. Eng, an internationally renowned pioneer in cancer genomic medicine, was honored for her clinical research, which has significantly improved patient outcomes.
“I am honored and humbled to receive this award,” she says. “To receive it on stage with the Honorable Joe Biden as well as Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, co-discoverers of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, is overwhelming.”
Michael Thun, MD, Emeritus Vice President of Epidemiological Research at the American Cancer Society, also received a 2018 Medal of Honor.
Connecting genetic mutations to cancer
Dr. Eng has dedicated her career to understanding the genes that play a role in heritable cancers and translating those findings into improved patient care.
Her research revealed the relationship between certain germline PTEN mutations and Cowden syndrome, which carries high risks of breast, thyroid and other cancers. Since then, she and her colleagues have linked other gene mutations for Cowden and Cowden-like syndromes as well as pheochromocytoma. These discoveries are helpful for examining the pathogenesis of common cancers, as well as for diagnosis, prognosis, therapy and prevention — building the foundation of precision oncology.
“We currently can predict a group’s risk of getting specific cancers, but my long-term goal is to predict individuals’ risk,” says Dr. Eng. “We are looking at various modifying factors that interact with germline mutations. The time is ripe to identify and deliver targeted therapies for patients with heritable gene mutations.”
Most recently, Dr. Eng’s work has focused on exploring the microbiome of cancers, which could offer a new perspective in the battle against the disease.
“My hope is to find a biomarker that would help us diagnose breast cancer early and easily,” she says. “In our wildest dreams, we hope we can use microbiomics right before breast cancer forms, and then prevent cancer with probiotics or antibiotics.”
About Dr. Eng
Dr. Eng grew up in Singapore and the United Kingdom and entered the University of Chicago at age 16. After earning an MD and PhD there, she specialized in internal medicine at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and completed a fellowship in medical oncology at Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She then trained in clinical cancer genetics at the University of Cambridge and the Royal Marsden NHS Trust, and completed postdoctoral research training in human cancer genomics at the University of Cambridge.
When she returned to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in 1995, she was one of only two formally trained clinical cancer geneticists in the U.S.
Dr. Eng joined Cleveland Clinic in 2005, where she founded and leads the Genomic Medicine Institute and its clinical arm, the Center for Personalized Genetic Healthcare. She holds the Sondra J. and Stephen R. Hardis Endowed Chair in Cancer Genomic Medicine and has published more than 500 peer-reviewed articles.
Among her numerous accolades, Dr. Eng has been elected to the American Society for Clinical Investigation, the Association of American Physicians and the National Academy of Medicine. She served on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetics, Health and Society, and has been named one of the most influential biomedical researchers in the world.