Theodora Ross, MD, PhD, Professor of Internal Medicine and Director of UT Southwestern’s Cancer Genetics Program, helps people understand what their genes might be telling them about their risk for cancer.

SWMed_RossRoss is also the holder of the Jeanne Ann Plitt Professorship in Breast Cancer Research, and the H. Ben and Isabelle T. Decherd Chair in Internal Medicine, in honor of Henry M. Winans, Sr., MD. Both were established at Southwestern Medical Foundation, where the supporting funds are held.

“There are very few universities that provide the kind of support our program receives. Many cancer centers are focused on tumor genetics, and genetic inheritance is orphaned,” Ross said.

The Cancer Genetics program counsels more than 3,000 cancer genetics patients a year assessing their cancer risk, including kidney, skin, lung, breast, ovarian, colon, endocrine and prostate cancers. If a known genetic predisposition to cancer is found, Ross and her team counsel the patient about the best ways to prevent cancer from forming.

Twenty years ago, this type of work was not possible. “…we didn’t know how to use the genetic information that we had,” Ross said. “Today we do. And we can save people’s lives. It’s such an exciting time.”

Patients who already have cancer can also benefit. “Genetic testing can help us make important decisions about the best method of treatment. For breast cancer, for example, we can do a quick test to determine whether patients have a certain mutation, which could help decide whether they will have bilateral mastectomy versus just a lumpectomy,” Ross explained. In addition, genetic testing can help physicians determine which chemotherapy to recommend, and whether an investigational drug might be warranted.

Dr. Ross leads a laboratory that investigates how cells transform from normal cells to cancer cells, and how some cancer cells are able to withstand specifically targeted cancer drugs. One of her main areas of investigation is the BRCA1 gene, which – when abnormal – predisposes women to breast and ovarian cancer. And she managed to find time to write a book, “A Cancer in the Family: Take Control of Your Genetic Inheritance,” that provides patients with “a needed resource.”

“Whether or not a variant in any gene causes disease is the big question we still need to answer in many cases,” she says. “There are 25,000 genes in our genome, and our studies have shed light on only about 6,000 of them. And of those, we know only about 100 genes that cause cancer when they’re faulty.”

“Until we build a solid cancer genetics research foundation, we can’t make promises for how it will ‘cure’ cancer,” Ross said. “The overpromising that happens continuously out there is not helpful and is a repeat of past failures to deliver. I think if we support investigation into the fundamentals of genetics and cancer by talented scientists and doctors with patience, we’ll make more and faster headway for future patients.”