The implications of a chronic health condition have long been a part of George Chao’s life. Because Chao had severe asthma, he and his parents emigrated from Taiwan to the United States. Chao, 28, has called North Carolina his home since he was 5 years old.
From an early age, Chao knew he wanted to pursue research. As an M.D./Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his focus is breast cancer. He has been studying basal-like breast tumors (BBT), which represent between 10 and 20 percent of breast cancer diagnoses and constitute one of the most aggressive forms. BBT disproportionately affects both younger women and African-Americans, and few effective treatments exist for this subtype.
“This cancer has a poor outcome and is very aggressive,” says Chao. “The focus of my research is to gain a greater understanding of why this disease behaves the way it does, identify specific traits and target them, and to increase the chemotherapy arsenal.”
Chao has sought to improve the ability to differentiate BBT from other subtypes to gain insight into its causes or origins and identify targets for therapy. He documented disruptions in the BCRA1 pathway to better understand how these defects can give rise to basal-like cancer.
In April, the Graduate School recognized Chao with an Impact Award. This honor, sponsored by the school’s Graduate Education Advancement Board and presented to 23 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate students in 2011, recognizes research benefiting North Carolina communities and citizens.
Collaboration is a key component to good research, Chao says. “My adviser (Charles Perou, Ph.D.) is well-renowned in the field of breast cancer. There is a lot of internal support among older graduate students, younger graduate students and faculty.”
He will complete his main research project and spend another year in the genetics and molecular biology doctoral degree program. Then Chao will return to medical school where he spent the first two years of his eight-year dual-degree program.
Chao hopes to have his own laboratory in an academic medical center one day and see his and his colleagues’ research improve the treatment options for women with breast cancer, particularly chemotherapy treatments with severe side effects.
“This may not happen in the form of one discovery; there may need to be incremental discoveries,” says Chao. “The goal is to create knowledge that can allow us to continue making forward progress toward improving outcomes.”