Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School

Boston, Massachusetts
Professor, Medical Oncology/Molecular and Cellular Oncology (DFCI)
Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Research Projects

Brain metastasis is one of the most devastating diagnoses in breast and other cancer types
with detrimental effects on clinical outcomes. This is in part due to the special challenges
associated with the treatment of brain metastases, including ineffective drug delivery due to
the special microenvironment of the brain as well as the extreme heterogeneity (different types) of cancer cells driving therapeutic resistance.

To tackle these challenges, Dr. Kornelia Polyak, a pioneer of the tumor microenvironment (TME) and tumor heterogeneity, is leading a collaboration with Dr. Valerie Weaver, also a pioneer in the TME and the physical properties of cancer cells.

The research is investigating how changes in environmental stress such as lack of nutrients or low oxygen, alters the sugar molecules attached to cancer cells of primary tumors compared to those attached to brain metastatic cancer cells. These changes can alter the cancer cell’s response to treatment, the ability of immune cells to recognize the cells, and the stiffness of the tumor, which affects drug delivery.

The role of sugar coating and variability in stress responses in cancer are largely unexplored scientific areas of cancer research with high clinical impact for positive therapeutic outcomes. The successful completion of this research will lay the foundation of combination therapies targeting both cancer cells and their microenvironment for the more effective treatment of brain metastatic disease.


Kornelia Polyak, M.D., Ph.D., is a Professor of Medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School. She received her M.D. in 1991 from Albert Szent-Gyorgyi Medical University in Szeged, Hungary. In 1995, she received her Ph.D. in cell biology and genetics from Cornell University Graduate School of Medical Sciences, New York, New York. She completed post-doctoral studies in cancer genetics at Johns Hopkins Oncology Center in Baltimore, Maryland in 1998 prior to joining the faculty at DFCI and Harvard.

Dr. Polyak is an internationally recognized leader of the breast cancer research field. Her laboratory is dedicated to the molecular analysis of human breast cancer with the goal improving the clinical management of breast cancer patients. Her lab has devoted much effort to develop new ways to study tumors as a whole and to apply interdisciplinary approaches. She has also been successful with the clinical translation of her findings including the testing of efficacy of JAK2 and BET bromodomain inhibitors for the treatment of triple-negative breast cancer in clinical trials.Dr. Polyak has received numerous awards including the Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research in 2011, the 2012 AACR Outstanding Investigator Award for Breast Cancer Research, and the Rosalind Franklin Award in 2016. She was elected as a Fellow to the AAAS in 2019 and to the AACR Academy of Fellows in 2020. She is also a 2015 recipient NCI Outstanding Investigator award and is a recipient of the 2020 Distinguished Alumna Award from Weil-Cornell.

Our approach emphasizes a collaborative, team environment to accelerate new breakthroughs.


Valerie M. Weaver

Accelerate innovative research like this and help save cancer patient lives.

Cancer Type Areas

Related Updates

Questions You Should Be Asking Your Oncologist

The results are in, and you have cancer. Though no appointment will be stress-free, the first appointment with your oncologist is often the most difficult. It’s scary, you’re unfamiliar with the jargon, and you have so many questions and worries racing through your mind that it is hard to focus. Because of this, it is vital to prepare for your first appointment – and knowing what to ask is essential.  Write Down Questions as They Come Up From the moment you have your diagnosis, keep a notebook handy where you can document every question that comes into your mind. There will be a lot, and it will be impossible to remember all of them without recording them. Writing questions as they come helps keep your thoughts in order and allows you to be your own advocate. Even with the best care team in the world, there is no better advocate for you than you. Basic Questions to Ask Your Oncologist Not sure what to ask? The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) has your back. Get the conversation rolling with questions like these: 1. Where did my cancer originate? Has it spread? This will likely be the first thing your care team discusses, but it is essential that you fully understand your diagnosis.  2. Is there a genetic link to this type of cancer? Should my family members be tested? Many cancers are genetic, and this question can potentially save lives.  3. What treatment options are available? Ask your care team what they recommend and why. There may be numerous options, and your doctor should be able to explain the pros and cons of each one.  4. What happens if the treatment approach doesn’t work? Knowing this will help your peace of mind, but it also allows you to assess if your care team is the right fit. Some teams may be more risk-averse, and others may be more willing to try new therapies. Speak to your care team about how/when they consider a treatment unsuccessful and what the next steps would be. 5. How will you help me manage side effects? Review the potential side effects and what support you can receive. Speaking about side effects early on will allow your care plan to be proactive rather than reactive.  6. What will my treatment cost? Cancer treatments can be expensive, and you will want to prepare for this. Your care team can also discuss what treatments your insurance may cover and what options it will not.  7. What can I do to preserve my fertility? If you want biological children in the future, this is vital to ask. Addressing it after treatment begins can be too late. 8. What impact will treatment have on my lifestyle? It may be unavoidable, but preparing for any impact on your lifestyle can make the transition easier.  9. Where can I get more information or support? Your care team deals with diagnoses day in and day out. They are a wealth of information and can point you toward resources, groups, and more. NFCR may also be able to help via our Patient Assistance […]

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