Utthara Nayar is targeting cancer drug resistance

In a #WhyIScience Q&A, a breast cancer researcher talks about the power of the scientific method and the importance of leadership in the sciences

Utthara Nayar
Utthara Nayar

Patients who have estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) metastatic breast cancer (MBC), a form of the disease that grows in response to estrogen, are usually treated with drugs that block receptors from binding to that hormone. However, almost all of the patients on these ER-blocking therapies become resistant to them over time, allowing their cancers to progress. Utthara Nayar is part of a team that is sequencing the genomes of MBC tumors to determine if genetic changes play a role in cancer drug resistance in the ER+ form of the disease. If found, these genetic alterations could point to better therapeutics for drug-resistant patients.

Currently a postdoc in the lab of Nikhil Wagle at the Broad Institute and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Nayar is training to one day lead an independent laboratory at an academic research institution at the interface of basic biology, targeted therapeutics, and drug resistance. She says her ultimate goal is to establish a translational research program that deploys innovative screening and genomics tools to enable precision medicine.

For this #WhyIScience Q&A, Nayar spoke with us about her life as a cancer researcher and the experiences that brought her here.

Q: What got you interested in science?
On summer vacations with my granddad, a self-made chemical engineer, I followed him around the garden examining insects and plants, and asking incessant questions. But it was the moment I repaired a broken Fisher-Price carousel record toy at the age of five that he decided I needed to be in STEM. From that moment on he devoted every moment we had together to encouraging my inquisitive nature. 

Q: What made you later decide to focus on biology as opposed to, say, engineering?
As a kid growing up cloistered in Oman, I loved physics and biology, because they provide answers to natural phenomena in such different ways. During my undergraduate years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was accepted into Biology Core Curriculum, an honors program that took an independent, liberal arts approach to biology education. It was there that I found that I really loved laboratory science—independently formulating a hypothesis, then designing and performing experiments with all the appropriate controls to test it. Even now, my greatest joy lies in making random observations, positing a hypothesis, then looking up the scientific literature in that unrelated field. (It helps that I usually find that I’m vindicated!)

And the reason I am so interested in metastatic breast cancer and the problem of cancer drug resistance in particular is that, during my time as an undergrad, I lost a grand-aunt to breast cancer, while another was diagnosed and cured. That simultaneous tragedy and hope inspired me to direct my energies towards trying to find cures for the disease.

Q: What, in your opinion, has been your biggest scientific accomplishment?
During graduate school, I characterized a novel anti-cancer compound that we identified using an assay that was specific to a particular kind of lymphoma. However, I was able to determine the general mechanism that made the compound effective. As a result, we were able to greatly expand the potential use of this new drug to many different types of cancer. My previous lab is still working on testing the compound more intensively, but I hope to one day hear that it can be used in the clinic.

Q: Who has inspired you to do what you do?
I am completely awed by the bravery of female leaders of state, in particular Indira Gandhi, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, all of whom came to power in patriarchal cultures while facing down mortal danger. I believe pure ambition, while important, cannot alone explain why these women had the courage to want to shape their countries’ futures. They motivate me every day to live my life in service of ideas much larger than myself.

Q: What do you think are important characteristics of leaders in science?

Utthara Nayar (foreground, right) with colleagues in Nikhil Wagle’s lab at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

A: I see the best science being done in collaborative rather than competitive environments, and the best scientific leaders I’ve known accordingly encourage collegiality, while at the same time ensuring that mentees’ individual development goals are being met. I hope scientific leaders remember that, in order to get the best out of people, it is important to want the best for them.

Q: What do you try to impart to mentees, or to scientists just entering the field?
When I mentor young scientists, my first priority is to instill an appreciation for the discoveries that came before—ones that will enable them to understand complex scientific concepts with ease. As scientists, we truly stand on the shoulders of giants!

And the best practical advice I can give to mentees is that, when you feel defeated by the day’s latest failure, it helps to take a step back and remember all the obstacles you overcame to get where you are. Take a break, then come back refreshed and ready to give your all again. (I speak from lots of experience with this!)