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Medical Perspectives on World Cancer Research Day

An Interview with Julia Elvin and Sonja Alexander

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At Foundation Medicine, we’ve spent more than a dozen years conducting cutting-edge research within the oncology space, reinforcing the understanding that cancer is a disease of the genome. Our products and continued advancements are the result of our passion to serve as an essential partner in cancer care. In recognition of World Cancer Research Day, we reflect on how key advancements in oncology research impact the work that we do each day.

For many at Foundation Medicine, contributing to advances in cancer research was the catalyst that brought them to the company. For Dr. Julia Elvin, SVP and Laboratory Director at our Cambridge site, this started with her undergraduate degree in molecular biology, which turned into the pursuit of an MD/PhD degree, and eventually, a residency and fellowship in gynecologic pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. While at Brigham and Women’s, Julia was part of a team that made key discoveries about the origins of ovarian cancer. They carefully studied ovaries and fallopian tubes removed for risk reduction from women with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome and inherited BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations.

Julia thought she could bring these advancements from the research bench “to the bedside” through practicing diagnostic pathology in the community setting. However, she quickly realized that the cancer biology research she was so excited by during her training wasn’t yet impacting the care of her patients.

“These women receiving the diagnoses of ovarian, endometrial, and cervical cancer were still getting essentially the same therapy used for the past 30 years, even though we had started to understand their tumors better,” she explained. “And that was a kind of wakeup call to me ... I didn't want to be part of the ‘old guard’ that was still okay with the way we were practicing gynecologic, pathology and oncology.”

 

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Similarly, Sonja Alexander, a medical science liaison with Foundation Medicine, was practicing as a nurse practitioner working in a busy gynecologic oncology practice. She too was observing that her patients’ standard of care wasn't advancing as quickly as the science.

Both Julia and Sonja were hopeful for advances that would extend their patient’s survival and improve their quality of life. The possibility of contributing and working towards identifying new and improved treatment options available for more patients brought each of them to Foundation Medicine.

Julia joined Foundation Medicine in 2014, inspired by the idea that Foundation Medicine would offer the path to translate the scientific knowledge that she knew existed into a diagnostic tool that could benefit patients. 

Sonja was introduced to Foundation Medicine by her work as a nurse practitioner, often learning from experts like Julia about how she could get her patients tested and what the genomic results revealed about their unique tumor. “They really wanted to be a partner, not just a vendor,” Sonja recalled. Foundation Medicine provided opportunities for her to become more educated and informed about comprehensive genomic profiling, and Sonja joined the company’s speaker's bureau before joining the company full time as a medical science liaison in 2019.

Now, at Foundation Medicine, Sonja extends that same helping hand—offering more information—to new providers in similar positions. “Hopefully, I’m helping even more patients than would have been possible as a nurse practitioner by speaking with these providers and sharing education and awareness,” she said. A day in her role is typically filled by spending time speaking with patients and physicians, helping them to better understand the insights provided by Foundation Medicine tests to help with treatment decision making.

 

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Julia fills a different role at the helm of our Cambridge lab, overseeing the testing of patient’s tumor samples and propelling research advancements with her team of pathologists. “What's different about Foundation Medicine is that we are interacting with so many patients in so many areas of the world every day. We are building up experience and knowledge, including seeing rare events that can be truly instructive,” she explained. In her position, she is deeply ingrained in ensuring the consistency and functionality of our labs, and continuing research. 

Both Sonja and Julia are driven by the understanding that what we know today could change tomorrow. Though their roles within the company vary greatly, their passion, commitment to patients and spirit of innovation is shared. And while they each have many different tasks to complete in their day-to-day work, research underscores all that they do. While Sonja shares meaningful updates from the latest research out of a medical conference with providers, and Julia is helping our labs maintain consistency to ensure we can participate in the trials that advance that same research. 

“Being the person that does a lot of this education and awareness work, we have to always stay current and up to date on the latest and greatest,” Sonja explained. “We’re trying to build that relationship where providers can come to us and ask us questions, and to see us as a resource that is always current on the newest science, research, and innovation.”

“I think what amazes me most is that we are still discovering,” Julia shared. “Even to see the effects of the treatments that we're using today and watching how those interact with tumor biology and individual patient biology to basically cause an evolution of those tumors. It's almost like being the modern Darwin in the Galapagos Islands, but in real time today. We’re watching tumors evolve, and then responding, thinking of ways to fight that tumor evolution.” 

And while science advances, so does Foundation Medicine. For both women, it’s important that the company continues to stay at the cutting edge of research, to advocate for advancements in care, and to avoid seeing the stagnation that they were met with before the existence of comprehensive genomic profiling. “I think we need to keep pushing that needle forward and understand how we can advance science to learn more,” Sonja explained. “Research eventually turns into standard of care.”

“One of the great privileges of my job is being a part of this fantastic team at Foundation Medicine,” Julia shared. “To see my team’s passions unfold, and to be able to share information and ideas with them makes me hopeful for the future.”

While research impacts each of our jobs in unique ways here at Foundation Medicine, it drives each of us forward in our pursuit for the best for our patients, physicians and partners. “We all bring our own niche specialty, but ultimately, we just want to help patients. It’s this company of experts together that that can make that change,” said Sonja.

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