Here’s to 2017- New Year, New Research: How Dr. Kim Hirshfield is contributing to the breast cancer community

Olivia Bonevento is a featured guest blogger for Komen CSNJ.  She lives at the Jersey Shore and is currently a student at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania.  Read more about Olivia on her personal blog – oliviabonevento.wordpress.com.

Associate professor of medicine Kim Hirshfield

Happy 2017! As a new year comes along, we are often inclined to not only reflect on the previous year and the achievements/shortcomings of that year, but also to reflect on the future and what we can do differently to improve the world – whether it be a small contribution or something bigger than ourselves. Dr. Kim Hirshfield, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and an assistant professor of medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, is no different. She has contributed immensely to the breast cancer community over the years and is not done making her mark- she plans on further advancing breast cancer research and spreading her expertise to those who need it.

Dr. Hirshfield agreed to speak with me about who she is and what she stands for, and I can say for one that it was an absolute honor to work with such an intellectual, genuine human being. Read on to learn more about Dr. Hirshfield’s story- one of many stories that show how much work people put into ending breast cancer and bettering their communities, one day at a time.

Dr. Hirshfield began her breast cancer career as a Komen fellow- this fellowship shaped her career and influenced her decision to pursue breast cancer research. She says that the Komen Fellowship “altered the trajectory of my career by 180 degrees”. She elaborates by going back to 1985 when her father had passed from cancer just before she was to take the MCAT exams. That experience, she says, was undoubtedly the most difficult experience in her life. It had a profound effect on her decision to not attend medical school after college, and instead, focus on research in graduate school. During her early work as a researcher, she realized that “science for science’s sake” was not an ideal fit for her. She eventually returned to Robert Wood Johnson Medical School where she focused on everything that medicine had to offer besides cancer. It was the school’s dean who introduced her to the Komen Fellowship Program. After participating in the fellowship, she went from avoiding oncology to having a deep desire to become a physician who focused on caring for individuals with breast issues, including breast cancer. She participated again in the fellowship program as a medicine resident. Through this second fellowship, Dr. Hirshfield said that one of the main things she learned is that all women are unique, as is their disease and that a “one size fits all” approach does not work in this discipline. She also learned truly how the “it takes a village” approach couldn’t be more relevant in optimizing the outcomes for patients with breast cancer.

Her career had many highlights before fully joining the Rutgers Cancer Institute, and many of these highlights have also shaped who she is as a professional and as a human being. Dr. Hirshfield received her doctoral degree from John Hopkins University after she matriculated at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School as a medical student, an internal medicine resident, chief resident, and fellow in Hematology and Oncology. Much of her training did include breast cancer-related research at the Cancer Institute after her Komen fellowship. Dr. Hirshfield believes that even though her road to the Cancer Institute was atypical and her family affectionately called her a “forever student”, she was meant to take every step that she did- those steps made her the professional she is today.

Currently, Dr. Hirshfield works at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey as a medical oncologist and Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Medical Oncology and serves as the Director of the Precision Medicine Initiative Translational Research Laboratory. As a part of this initiative, her team identifies genetic mutations in each patient’s cancer and how the medical team can target these genetic abnormalities when providing care. The focus of her research stems from observations in patients used to validate new approaches for therapies based on genomic results obtained from patient tumors. Her team collaborates on how to re-employ those findings back into the clinic. This may take the form of a specific treatment for a single patient or a clinical trial that may be appropriate for many patients- they call this the bench to bedside approach that flows in both directions. Dr. Hirshfield has made magnificent strides in her research and has received research funding awards and recognition from the New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research on multiple occasions for scientific excellence.

The New Year is all about thinking to the future and what we can do to improve, but we can’t forget about the impact of Dr. Hirshfield’s current research. As a physician-scientist, her clinical and research focus is breast cancer, translational research, and personalized medicine, all used to improve outcomes for breast cancer patients at the Stacy Goldstein Breast Cancer Center at the Rutgers Cancer Institute. Due to Dr. Hirshfield’s clinical expertise in breast cancer and research expertise in molecular epidemiology, she also participates as a collaborator in the Women’s Circle of Health Study at the Rutgers Cancer Institute conducted in conjunction with Rutgers School of Public Health, and other collaborators. The goal of this study is to understand factors that contribute to racial disparities in breast cancer, focusing on issues specific to unique populations. Dr. Hirshfield knows that breast cancer doesn’t discriminate, and works to understand how we can make treatment optimal for everyone, which is yet another thing that makes her so remarkable.  Dr. Hirshfield also is an integral member of the cancer center’s Precision Medicine initiative that includes weekly tumor boards to discuss patients’ tumor genomic profiling results. The team recently has identified genomic alterations in the gene that encodes HER2 – a protein that appears on the surface of some breast cancer cells. Genomic tumor testing identifies genetic changes in this gene that are not found by standard pathological testing assays. Patients may not achieve the best responses to treatment without the addition of therapies that target the HER2 protein as its presence contributes to drug resistance. They are now routinely testing subsets of breast cancer early to identify all therapies that should be used during the curative treatment time point – the time point when treatment is given with the intent to cure the disease.

Looking towards the future, most specifically 2017, is important to Dr. Hirshfield and her colleagues. They have many goals. Because of the tumor genomic testing used by Dr. Hirshfield and colleagues at the Rutgers Cancer Institute, they are able to see a broader range of findings that other genomic tests miss. They are now aiming to characterize new gene mutations that not only cause tumors to grow, but also to identify new and more effective targeted therapies. Dr. Hirshfield and her team engineer model cells in the laboratory to carry these specific genomic alterations. The models they use allow them to test a variety of drugs to identify the best approach to treatment that can be brought back to clinic and patients. The goal is to ultimately improve patient outcomes through enhanced drug response.

Dr. Hirshfield is always looking to the future, and 2017 is no exception. Every time she goes into the laboratory, mentors a student, or treats a patient, she has the future of breast cancer in mind, and that in itself is admirable. As we go through 2017, we should focus on making this world better through our individual contributions. One person can truly make all the difference. Thank you, Kim Hirshfield, for your dedication to breast cancer research and to bettering our community. Here’s to a successful 2017 for all.