By Shanen M. Sherrer, PhD
Shanen M. Sherrer, PhD, is the Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, St. Mary’s College of Maryland. We interviewed Dr. Sherrer to find out about her career as a cancer researcher, how attending a Shine A Light event impacted her work and what’s on the horizon in lung cancer research.
Q: What attracted you to the field of cancer research?
A: I always knew that I wanted to be a biochemist (in simpler terms, how chemical processes work in living things), but it is a vast field of study. My first research project involved studying antioxidants from plants. This work led to a research focus on chemical modification of genes in humans, also known as DNA damage, caused by environmental hazards such as air pollution and sunlight. During these studies, I found increases in genetic mutations that lead to cancer if left uncorrected. When the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer cited my work as evidence for classification of a new cancer-causing agent, I came to the realization that I was not just a basic science investigator, but also a cancer researcher.
Q: What made you decide to switch your research focus to lung cancer?
A: I was invited to share my perspective as a researcher at Shine a Light events in Durham, North Carolina. At these events, I heard stories from patients who developed lung cancer without a family history of cancer and the role of environmental exposures in cancer development. These conversations stayed with me and challenged me to better connect my research in the laboratory to the fight against lung cancer. These experiences also made me realize how important it is for researchers to stay engaged with the community.
Q: What excites you most about the future of lung cancer research?
A: When thinking about new directions in lung cancer research, I am most excited about the development of new treatment options and our ability to gain a better understanding of what environmental factors actually cause cancer. Researchers and healthcare professionals are no longer focused solely on lung cancer linked to tobacco products and there is an increased emphasis on improving the quality of life for patients. In the last five years, more personalized medical therapies have reached a larger group of patients than the previous decade. In addition, technological advances are a key driving force behind the growing progress in lung cancer research, including scientific tools used to study genetic mutations and immunotherapy.
Q: What is your current research focus?
A: I pursued additional research training to learn about an essential cancer prevention system in humans called DNA mismatch repair (MMR). My research findings addressed how cadmium-induced MMR inactivation can lead to gene mutations that develop into cancer. Cadmium is a toxic metal that has been linked to lung and kidney cancer. The development of too many harmful genetic mutations cause cells to grow out of control, which can lead to the formation of cancerous tumors that spread to other parts of the body. At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, my undergraduate research students and I are currently investigating how cancer develops in the context of environmental exposure to harmful pollutants such as cadmium. Our research goals are to identify new cancer-causing factors and study their role in genetic mutations after exposure.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering doing work in this field, what would it be?
A: When given the opportunity, share your research findings with people! The average person does not know what is happening on the research side, so talking with others about your findings is a good way to help them learn more about lung cancer. For example, my research students are encouraged to present their results to a variety of audiences. These opportunities help bridge the gap between the research world and the people it serves. I think communication is key for progress in the field of lung cancer research.