MD Anderson physician receives Susan G. Komen’s highest honor for excellence in breast cancer research

Gordon Mills, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of Systems Biology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, will receive the 2013 Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction in Basic Sciences.

MD Anderson News Release 12/11/13

Presented at the 36th annual CTRC-AACR San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, the award recognizes Mills extensive contributions to understanding the molecular biology and pathology of breast cancer in his nearly three decade career as a physician-scientist.  

“I was extremely surprised and pleased to receive this honor. It’s an acknowledgment of the contributions that my team has made in understanding the processes driving breast cancer and how we can use that information to improve outcomes,” Mills said. 

Mills has championed an effort to build a systems biology approach to breast cancer by integrating the multitude of complex changes that researchers can now characterize in cancer cells.  To advance personalized medicine, Mills and his team established a functional genomics program that targets specific genetic aberrations in hopes of developing combination therapies.

With continued support from Susan G. Komen, this research approach led to the identification of two new subsets of breast cancer. These were discovered by implementing reverse phase protein array technology, a form of analysis that measures protein expression.  The underlying concept of the research embraces the notion that breast cancer comprises multiple diseases that can require a variety of treatments.

“One of the major efforts in our lab is trying to understand why luminal breast cancers, or hormone receptor positive tumors, which we normally think of having a good outcome, can recur five, 10 or even 20 years later,” Mills said. “How is it that they become dormant and then return as a much more aggressive and challenging tumor?”

While the award distinguishes excellence in basic science, Mills said we may need to redefine how cancer research is conducted as progress is made in understanding the disease.

“Indeed this award recognizes that we have gone back and forth from the patient to the lab bench in an iterative manner, and from the lab bench to the patient, to understand the biology of this disease,” he said.  “I think as we move forward the distinction between basic, translational and clinical science will decrease significantly.”

Mills received both his doctoral degree in biochemistry and his medical degree from the University of Alberta. In 1985, he joined the faculty of University of Toronto where he became associate professor in the departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Immunology and Clinical Biochemistry.  He also served as director of Oncology Research at Toronto General Hospital.  

In 1994, Mills was recruited to MD Anderson where he serves as the chairman of Systems Biology and holds the Olga Keith Wiess Distinguished University Chair in Cancer Medicine.  Additionally, Mills co-directs the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy and the Kleberg Center for Molecular Markers.

Over the course of his career, Mills work in breast and ovarian cancer and tumor immunology has appeared in more than 600 scientific papers.  He also serves as the principal investigator on 10 national peer-review grants and holds more than 20 patents related to novel technologies involving molecular markers.

“Susan G. Komen has made a major contribution to the improved outcomes we see in breast cancer patients and the change from when I started my training to where we are today is simply remarkable,” Mills said.  “The decreases in toxicity and improved management have really changed this disease, but we still have many problems and far too many women still die from this disease.”

Susan G. Komen established the award in 1992 to recognize pioneering work in clinical and basic science breast cancer research and treatment. Gabriel Hortobagyi, M.D., of Breast Medical Oncology at MD Anderson was a past recipient of the clinical award.

On December 11 at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, Mills will accept the award and deliver a keynote address on advances in breast cancer as a result of a systems biology approach to research.