Q&A with Sarah Adams, M.D., 2011 Liz Tilberis Awardee



Dr. Sarah Adams is a 2011 Liz Tilberis Grant Recipient.

Sarah DeFeo: How did you end up becoming a gynecologic oncologist?

Sarah Adams: Like many people, I didn’t always know this is what I wanted to do.  After college, I did volunteer work with AmeriCorps.  I was committed to service, and became interested in the service aspects of medicine.  I ended up in gynecologic oncology partly because of an interest in surgery, but also because of the great needs of the patients– it was so clear to me that there was a lot of work that needs to be done.  After my ob-gyn residency at the University of Chicago, I came to the University of Pennsylvania in 2006 to do my gynecologic oncology fellowship, and stayed.  There’s a great community of physicians and scientists working on ovarian cancer here. 
SD: Tell me a little about your OCRF-funded research.

SA:  Women with ovarian cancers that result from an inherited mutation in the BRCA gene show excellent response to a drug called a PARP inhibitor. The drug specifically kills cancer cells but spares normal cells because it targets a vulnerability caused by the BRCA gene mutation.  Women with hereditary ovarian cancer also have more immune cells within their tumors, suggesting that immune mechanisms contribute to their improved survival compared to women with non-hereditary disease.  We hypothesize that the PARP inhibitor could further increase the sensitivity of hereditary tumors to immune attack. In this research project, I will combine a PARP inhibitor and a drug that increases immune cells’ ability to kill tumor cells, called anti-CTLA4 antibody, with the expectation that both together should have a powerful therapeutic effect.  Sometimes women with non-hereditary ovarian cancers also develop defects in BRCA function; my hope is that the results of this study may also be applicable to non-hereditary ovarian cancer patients, too.

SD:  How do your patients motivate you in your research?

SA:   I am interested in science for science’s sake, but what I really care about is how it helps the women I treat.  I have been deeply affected by caring for women with gynecologic cancers.   Some of the most difficult issues arise in caring for young women affected by ovarian cancer—and many of them have BRCA mutations – which reminds me why I’m doing this, and motivates me to work harder in the lab.  The bottom line is always therapeutic efficacy:   the science is important to make the clinical part of our work better.

SD:  How will this OCRF award help your career?

SA:  Getting this grant was a really, really big deal for me!  This is first grant like this that I’ve received.  As a new independent investigator, it’s very important to receive a large multi-year grant like this one.  This grant will really give me a chance to see if I can make it in science, and it’s a huge boost that encourages me to keep working in the area of ovarian cancer research.

SD:  What do you think the biggest challenges are in ovarian cancer research?

SA:One of the great challenges with ovarian cancer is that it’s really not just one disease—there are various subtypes, all of which can behave differently.  Some research and trials seem to look at ovarian cancer as one entity, but BRCA-related ovarian tumors show that this isn’t the case.  My hope is that by looking specifically at this issue, we will be better able to target treatments for these women.  Research like this drives science forward, and scientific progress is the only way we’re going to really impact this disease.

Dr. Sarah Adams joined the faculty of the Ovarian Cancer Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009, where she conducts research, sees patients, and teaches medical students and residents.  Her undergraduate degree is from Harvard University, and she completed medical school and a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago.  Dr. Adams chose to pursue subspecialty training at the University of Pennsylvania because of the strength of the research program at the Ovarian Cancer Research Center.  In addition to OCRF, her work has been supported by grants from the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, the Sandy Rollman Foundation, the Kaleidoscope of Hope Foundation, the Ovarian Cancer SPORE through the Fox Chase Cancer Center, and the American Society of Clinical Oncology with a Young Investigator’s Award.