Rebecca Riggins, PhD: Getting comfortable with uncertainty.

Associate Professor, Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center
Georgetown University School of Medicine

“We are trying to take a drug that is already FDA approved for something completely different, Lou-Gehrig’s disease (specifically ALS), and repurpose it for treating invasive lobular breast cancer.”

At Georgetown University since 2003


Unmet needs in breast and brain cancer research.

In our research program, we seek to understand the role of estrogen-related receptors (ERRbeta and ERRgamma) in breast and brain cancers.

Love at first sample.

In breast cancer, one of the topics we study is in an area of unmet need. One of my first independent science loves is a less common type of breast cancer called invasive lobular breast cancer. It represents about 10-15% of breast cancer cases every year and it has some really interesting tumor biology. The way it grows is different and the way it responds to drugs is different. One of the things we have been working to understand is not just what makes it different, but also what can we do about it. What kind of drugs can we be using instead that might treat this type of breast cancer better?

We have a grant from the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program to research lobular breast cancer and its amino acid signaling, which is basically the way cells take up and use nutrients. We think this type of breast cancer might do it a little differently. We are trying to take a drug that is already FDA approved for something completely different, Lou-Gehrig’s disease (specifically ALS), and repurpose it for treating invasive lobular breast cancer. We have some early data in the lab to suggest that these types of breast cancer cells really do not like this drug. So, it’s a possibility that we could combine this drug with the other conventional drugs we would normally use to treat patients with this type of breast cancer.

Outsmarting an aggressor.

A newer area of focus for my lab is the study of drug resistance in glioblastoma, the most aggressive type of brain cancer. Glioblastoma is devastating, and there are fewer treatment options for this cancer than for any other. I came to this area of research through a combination of my fascination with estrogen-related receptors and the curiosity of my talented trainees. Now, with significant support from Partners in Research, we have found that these tumors, when they become resistant to the current standard of care, seem to become dependent on new pathways that are responsible for RNA processing. Our goal now is to find drugs to target these dependencies that will ultimately benefit patients.

Persistence, enthusiasm, and excitement to learn the unknown.

In the case of cancer research, you often find that people are drawn to a particular type of research or type of cancer because they have a personal experience with it. That can be an amazing motivating factor, but it’s not the only factor for success. Scientific curiosity is also important to have, to be more comfortable with uncertainty. Basically knowing that certain things may not work but giving it a try nonetheless. You have to be able to study and buckle down in class, but again, that is more or less self-selected in a lot of cases. You do not have to be a brilliant loner who has this magical idea that’s going to change the world, because, in fact, that is really not what we should be selecting for. You really want someone who is persistent, enthusiastic, and excited about learning the unknown, because that skill will take you anywhere.

“This career path tends to select for driven, talented people and sometimes they may not have encountered a lot of frustration or failure until now.”

My job here is to help you.

Each person is so different. What works for one person is not necessarily going to work for the next person. It is important to recognize that each person, student, or mentee needs something different. Setting up an open line of communication from the very beginning is one way to address this issue. I try to let people know that if they are having an issue to come and talk to me because my job here is to help you. Graduate training is not easy, and I don’t just mean in the technical aspects of it. Primary biomedical science research is all about failure, but if we do not acknowledge that, then it can be a really tough thing for people to accept. I have also noticed that, in general, when someone is on fire and everything is working, there is someone on the flip side where nothing is working. As a mentor, that is a tough balance. You want to support, hold up, and empathize with those who are struggling, but you also want to recognize those who are having a great moment, or three.

Our size is our strength.

I am in the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Research Center, and while we are not as large as some cancer centers, our size encourages an ability to be nimble. We have a few new collaborations with some of our new medical oncologists who I probably would not get to see in a larger research center. Here, I do get to see and work with them regularly. People are really open and collaborative and that is definitely a strength.