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La Jolla scientist wins Brinker Award for breast cancer research

Geoffrey Wahl of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is the recipient of the 2022 Brinker Award.
Geoffrey Wahl of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is the recipient of the 2022 Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction in Basic Science.
(Salk Institute)

The Susan G. Komen organization honors Geoffrey Wahl of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies for ‘major advancements.’

For Geoffrey Wahl, one of the most important elements of scientific discovery isn’t found under a microscope or in a test tube. It’s not in a lab space or notoriety. It’s in human connection.

Wahl’s nearly lifelong interest in science and the relationships he has forged along the way have led him to the Gene Expression Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, where he explores the links among cell development, cell repair and cancer to understand how breast cancers initiate and progress.

For the record:

1:33 p.m. Nov. 11, 2022This article was updated to correct that Geoffrey Wahl’s wife, Barbara, was a medical student at the time they met and later became an oncologist.

For his work, Wahl recently received the 2022 Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction in Basic Science from Susan G. Komen, the world’s largest nonprofit source of funding for the fight against breast cancer. According to the organization, the award recognizes scientists who have made the most significant advances in breast cancer research and medicine.

Wahl was honored for his contributions to the field of cancer genetics, including mechanisms of drug resistance and genome stability.

He said his interest in cancer and other diseases goes back to his childhood, when he faced “a very serious viral encephalitis” that he was told at the time was polio. He befriended a fellow patient who had the same affliction and soon died from it.

Wahl was in a hospital for several weeks and convalesced for several months. But unlike some of his teachers at school who told him he would need to retake certain classes, Wahl’s science teacher said he was excelling and would have gotten an A and didn’t need to retake the class.

“The combination of a science teacher that was so inspiring with the experience of having an illness and seeing someone my age die from it made me want to get into science,” Wahl said. “I didn’t want to be a doctor, because my [hospitalization] experience made me needle-shy.”

When Wahl was in his teens, a family friend died of cancer, which sparked his interest in that field.

“I found myself thinking, ‘What is cancer?’ and wondered how it could kill someone this way,” he said. “I knew enough to know cancer cells have deranged DNA, so I thought I wanted to study DNA replication and learn more.”

In college, a mentor inspired him to go to Harvard. There, his lab time helped him create partnerships with other scientists, with whom he was “quite successful” in developing his cellular research.

“It’s not the place but the person with whom you work that is important,” Wahl said. “And collaboration is key in science.”

Wahl was inspired to get into breast cancer research after meeting his now-wife, Barbara, who at the time was a medical student and he was a postdoctoral researcher when they were both at Stanford University. She later became an oncologist and focused on breast cancer at UC San Diego.

“She influenced me in terms of looking into breast cancer, gaps that need to be filled, what needs to be studied,” Wahl said.

“Wahl’s dedication to innovation and discovery has led to new methodologies and expanded our understanding of breast cancer initiation.”

— Jennifer Pietenpol, chief scientific adviser at Susan G. Komen

He soon was looking at the mechanism of drug resistance in cells.

“That’s a big problem in cancer [treatment],” he said. “So we looked at what it is that makes a cell resistant to certain drugs.”

He started down the path of how cells change state.

“His team examined mammary development cell by cell, using mice to provide the first evidence that mammary gland stem cells arise in the fetus,” according to Salk. “This discovery allowed them to ask whether human breast cancers have cells that resemble these primitive mammary gland cells, an idea first suggested more than 150 years ago.

“Wahl’s team found that some of the most lethal types of breast cancer reprogram their genetic material to resemble these early-stage cells. They are now using this fundamental knowledge to understand how conditions that increase breast cancer risk, such as aging and obesity, may create changes in the genetic material of an adult cell to enable it to act more like the cells in early mammary development that are designed to divide more frequently and invade adjacent tissue as part of their normal behavior.”

During Wahl’s research, he was introduced to Bianca Kennedy, who survived breast cancer twice and had a family member who fought multiple battles with the disease.

He brought Kennedy into the lab to provide a personal touch that helped keep the team motivated.

“Science should be done with an open mind; that’s why collaboration is so important,” Wahl said. “It can be too easy to lose track of the patient, even though the patient should be top of mind. While Bianca was in the lab, she faced another relapse and she told us about her experience, which was illuminating and motivating. She has added the human face that our science often needs to give us the additional motivation.”

Jennifer Pietenpol, chief scientific adviser at Komen and chief scientific and strategy officer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said “Wahl’s dedication to innovation and discovery has led to new methodologies and expanded our understanding of breast cancer initiation. His innovative approaches and vision have allowed for major advancements in research and engagement with the breast cancer community.”

However, Wahl said he sees the Brinker Award as the recognition his team deserves more than recognition of his own work.

“It has been their work, fighting through adversity, to make scientific discoveries through a series of failures and occasional successes,” he said. “They are underpaid, work long hours, but they are motivated.”

Wahl will present a keynote lecture in early December at the 45th annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in Texas, where he will discuss the findings for which he won the Brinker Award. ◆