Brian J. Czerniecki, MD, PhD.
In the quest to understand, treat, and even prevent cancer, few individuals stand out like Dr. Brian Czerniecki. A gifted oncologist, he has forged new paths in patient care and translational research. Most of all, his work gives hope to cancer patients, their families, and all of us who believe in the enormous potential of cancer research. In his dual role as surgeon and researcher, Dr. Czerniecki looks for ways to diagnose cancer early and treat it in the most effective and least invasive way possible. He specializes in breast conservation for patients with breast cancer, and is investigating the use of breast MRIs to better stage and treat certain patients.
Dr. Czerniecki is also recognized nationally for his contributions to developing sentinel node mapping – a less invasive procedure than diagnostic surgery for determining the spread of cancer into the lymph nodes.
Giving hope to Cancer Patients
Recently, Dr. Czerniecki tested with great success a cancer vaccine for patients with early stage breast cancer. The study, which is ongoing, sheds new light on how vaccines can inhibit tumor growth, lessen the severity of the disease, and prevent its recurrence.
Unlike traditional vaccines, which guard against infectious diseases such as influenza, cancer vaccines are intended to harness the body's immune system against cancer cells that are already present. Because cancer cells suppress the body's immune response – essentially tricking the immune system into ignoring, rather than rejecting, the tumor – a successful cancer vaccine must be able to overcome the cancer cells’ immune suppression and signal the immune system to attack them.
In what scientists call “targeted immunoediting,” Dr. Czerniecki's team investigated a potential vaccine that targets HER-2/neu over-expression in early stage breast cancer (DCIS). Over-expression of the HER-2/neu gene is linked to about 50 to 60 percent of DCIS cases, and helps predict the severity of the disease, as well as the risk of recurrence of invasive breast cancer.
By treating dendritic cells – specialized white blood cells that play a major role in activating immune response – with HER-2/neu, Dr. Czerniecki produced a vaccine he hoped would prompt an immune response. In fact, researchers found that nearly all patients exhibited an initial immune reaction to the vaccine, and half showed markedly reduced levels of HER-2/neu expression, leading to overall improvement in the severity of the disease.
Featured on the March 2007 cover of Cancer Research, this study is a source of excitement and optimism in the medical community. According to Dr. Czerniecki, these “vaccination strategies may therefore have potential for both the prevention and treatment of early breast cancer.”
A Mentor and a Leader
Along with his extraordinary work in the laboratory and with patients, Dr. Czerniecki is also a dedicated mentor to aspiring clinicians. He is program director of the Breast Cancer Fellowship, an initiative he helped establish to train the next generation of breast cancer specialists at Penn. For five years he has mentored clinical and research fellows who have continued their academic careers at the John Wayne Cancer Center, the Cleveland Clinic, Washington University, MD Anderson Cancer Center and other prestigious cancer centers.
Dr. Czerniecki serves the larger community of cancer researchers as a member of the Leukemia Immunobiology Review Committee of the American Cancer Society. For three years he has volunteered his time to review grants and help shape cancer research. He performs the same function for the National Cancer Institute. He has also moderated sessions for the Society of University Surgeons, Society of Surgical Oncology, and the American College of Surgeons.