Fergus J. Couch, Ph.D., studies how genetic alterations influence the development of both breast and pancreatic cancer. The long-term goals of his research program are to develop methods that predict an individual's risk of developing breast cancer and facilitate cancer prevention efforts, as well as develop tests that improve selection of treatment for individuals with breast and pancreatic cancer.
Specifically, inherited mutations that predispose to breast cancer are being identified by studying familial breast cancer. Separately, factors that influence the response of breast and pancreatic tumors to chemotherapy are being identified by characterizing early genetic alterations. Dr. Couch's team uses genomics and cell biological approaches and animal and mathematical models to address these goals.
Dr. Couch is affiliated with the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center and the Center for Individualized Medicine. His research is supported by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and an NIH Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Breast Cancer.
- Breast cancer susceptibility. Dr. Couch is working to identify the inherited genes and mutations that predispose to breast cancer. In parallel, as leader of two large international consortia — Consortium of Investigators of Modifiers of BRCA1/2 (CIMBA) and Triple Negative Breast Cancer Consortium (TNBCC) — Dr. Couch is identifying common inherited changes in DNA that influence the breast cancer risk of all women.
- Variants of uncertain significance in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast and ovarian cancer genes. Clinical testing for mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 is used to identify individuals at very high risk of cancer. However, many of the mutations identified have unclear involvement in cancer. Dr. Couch is using genetics and laboratory-based efforts to distinguish between the mutations that do and do not influence risk of cancer.
- Factors that influence response to chemotherapy. Dr. Couch has identified a series of factors located in a region of chromosome 17 that promote development of an aggressive form of breast cancer and the response of these tumors to therapy. His group is studying the biology of these factors in an effort to understand how they influence response to therapy and whether disrupting these factors could improve a patient's response to chemotherapy.
- Genetics of pancreatic precursor lesions. Dr. Couch is studying the genomics of purified premalignant lesions (pancreatic intraepithelial neoplasia [PanIN]) from the pancreas in order to identify factors that drive early pancreatic tumor development and response to therapy.
Significance to patient care
Dr. Couch's research will result in early identification of women at risk of breast cancer so that steps can be taken to prevent onset of the disease.
In addition, his work will contribute to the selection of the most appropriate therapy for each breast and pancreatic cancer patient, which should lead to improved outcomes.