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How Laura J. van ’t Veer, PhD, Became an Expert in Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer


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Laura J. van ’t Veer, PhD

Laura J. van ’t Veer, PhD

Breast cancer researcher and innovator Laura J. van ’t Veer, PhD, was born and reared in Amsterdam in 1957. “During high school, I had a wonderful biology teacher who was going through his own biology studies at the University of Amsterdam, and he was bringing that university-level education into my class, although I was only 14 years old at the time. I remember learning about genes—how they were the beginning of life and the drivers of how our body functions. I always loved science, but it was that rich experience that made me sure I wanted to pursue a career in medical research,” said Dr. van ’t Veer.


Following a Love of Biology

Dr. van ’t Veer explained that in the Netherlands, children start high school (middelbare school, in Dutch) at age 12, and then at age 15 till 18, they enter one of three different streams. The different streams represent different educational paths, based on a student’s academic level and interests.

“My whole undergraduate schooling was dedicated to biology. I attended the University of Amsterdam from 1976 to 1984, achieving a BS in biology and an MSc in molecular oncology. During my master’s work I did several rotations, and by chance, my second rotation was served at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. It was during the time that the first mutated gene was identified as a cause of bladder cancer cells, as differentiated from normal bladder cells. At the time, I was working as an undergraduate studying gene mutations in breast cancer,” said Dr. van ’t Veer.

In my more than 30-year career in cancer molecular biology, I still look back at that time as one of the most amazing experiences, when for the first time, a mutated gene was identified as having a role in human cancer.
— Laura J. van ’t Veer, PhD

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She continued, “In my more than 30-year career in cancer molecular biology, I still look back at that time as one of the most amazing experiences, when for the first time, a mutated gene was identified as having a role in human cancer. Over the subsequent years, my work has centered on breast cancer diagnostics.”

Dr. van ’t Veer continued her studies at the Leiden University, which is the oldest university in the Netherlands. In 1989, she received her PhD, focusing on the study of oncogene activation and tumorigenesis in ovarian cancer and melanoma.

“I was studying why an ovarian cell becomes malignant, using the technology that was available at the time, sequencing being the foremost method. I actually identified a particular mutated gene that was generating a tumor in one of my patients. Part of my studies involved attending a tumor board meeting with that patient. I think I was even more nervous than she was, having to present in front of a group of highly distinguished physicians. Unfortunately, this woman died of her ovarian cancer,” said Dr. van ’t Veer.

Groundwork for a Research Career

Dr. van ’t Veer then completed two postdoctoral fellowships, first at the cancer center of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston from 1989 to 1991, and then as a member of the Division of Molecular Carcinogenesis at The Netherlands Cancer Institute from 1992 to 1993. She subsequently joined the Netherlands Cancer Institute as a molecular biologist in the Department of Pathology.

“At the Institute in 1993, I was selected to lead the Departments of Molecular Pathology and Genetic Counseling, culminating with an appointment as the Head of Diagnostic Oncology, overseeing the clinical work and associated research. At the time, Piet Borst was the Institute’s Director, and he felt strongly that molecular diagnostics was a vital field to pursue.”

She continued, “Soon after, with the identification of the BRCA mutation, I started the Hereditary Cancer Clinic in 1994. During those years, my diagnostic work was in all cancer types, but my research always focused on breast cancer, including genetic epidemiology, gene environment, and looking at why some women have a recurrence of aggressive cancer and others are at very low risk for recurrence,” said Dr. van ’t Veer.

Leading the Way in Prognostics

Dr. van ’t Veer explained that her work at Molecular Pathology led to the 70-gene signature test, which is marketed as MammaPrint. In 2003, she was one of the founders of a Netherlands Cancer Institute spinoff, the molecular profiling company Agendia.

In 2008, after spending almost 20 productive years at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, Dr. van ’t Veer accepted a position as Visiting Associate Professor at the

With the great new predictive diagnostic tools and the promising new therapies that are emerging from the pipeline, it’s an exciting time for breast cancer researchers, clinicians, and patients.
— Laura J. van ’t Veer, PhD

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University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. In 2010, Dr. van ’t Veer moved to UCSF as Professor of Laboratory Medicine and assumed leadership of the Bay Area Breast Cancer Specialized Program of Research Excellence and the Breast Oncology Program.

In 2011, she took the helm of the Athena Breast Health Network at UCSF and also established a Laboratory for Applied Genomics, which she heads. Asked about her current work, Dr. van ’t Veer said, “At UCSF, I work on identifying the right treatment for the right patient for enrollment on the I-SPY 2 trial. Patients with breast cancer at high risk for recurrence [per MammaPrint results] are eligible for the trial, and we match a new phase II targeted therapy by adaptive randomization. Through this trial, we have doubled to tripled the response to therapy for these early diagnosed patients, which translates to a 95% 4-year survival.”

Prevention Strategies Needed

Over the past couple of decades, more women have been seeking genetic testing to determine their risk of developing breast cancer. Dr. van ’t Veer explained the latest guidelines in this very sensitive issue. “The guidelines in genetic testing for women who have a family history of breast cancer is to get tested if you have two first-degree relatives with breast cancer or one first-degree relative at a young age. Those guidelines for genetic testing are quite clear when it involves family history, but as our knowledge of tumor biology increases, it is becoming clear that information about a woman’s genetic risk for breast cancer is relevant for all women, regardless of their family history.”

As a final thought, Dr. van ’t Veer stressed the importance of prevention strategies as a way to further build on the great progress she’s seen in breast cancer over the course of her noteworthy career.“I’m currently involved in a terrific study called WISDOM. We want to determine if breast cancer screening can be improved by personalizing each woman’s mammogram schedule, compared with the one-size-fits-all annual approach. With the great new predictive tools and the promising new therapies that are emerging from the pipeline, it’s an exciting time for breast cancer researchers and clinicians,” said Dr. van ’t Veer. 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. van ’t Veer has a small part-time employment, serves in a leadership role, and owns stock in Agendia.


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