The Accelerating Excellence In Translational Science (AXIS)Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science

Dr. Shehla Pervin

To Shehla Pervin, Ph.D, “the complexities of breast cancer research appear exciting and challenging.” Though she was originally intimidated by these challenges, she came to embrace a research approach which teases out layer after layer of complexity.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, excluding non-melanoma skin cancer, and it is one of the leading causes of cancer death in women of all races. Many of us think of breast cancer as a single disease, but from a molecular and genetic perspective, it is actually a family of diseases, each with specific genetics, physiology, and treatment possibilities. It is thought to be the result of a complex interplay of genetic and environmental causes, and for these reasons, among others, it is challenging to study.

Dr. Pervin earned a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Jadavpur University in India. It was during her postdoctoral training at the University of Kentucky that she first became interested in breast cancer research. She further pursued this interest as a post-doctoral fellow and research faculty member at UCLA. In 2009 Dr. Pervin moved to Charles Drew University, where she is currently an Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine. She served as invited guest editor for Current Pharma Design Journal in 2011, and she has published work in numerous high-impact journals. At CDU she chairs the Radiation Safety Committee and serves as a member of the Research Academic Senate.

Over the years, Dr. Pervin has followed a number of different approaches to study breast cancer. While at UCLA, she devoted most of her efforts to attempting to understand the detailed signaling pathways that promote the proliferation of breast cancer cells, studying cancer cells grown in the lab. Eventually, Dr. Pervin chose to take her work in a different direction, because she felt that studying established breast cancer cell lines “did not reveal the intricate details of tumorigenesis that occurs in vivo” (within the living organism). When she moved to CDU, she pursued this approach and began growing human breast tumors in mice. “I was extremely elated when I was able to grow human breast tumors in vivo,” she recounts. She also notes that, “Obtaining fresh and frozen human breast tumors was easier in CDU than UCLA.”

Dr. Pervin also works with mammary cancer stem cells, the widely studied cells that promote tumor initiation. In their paper published January 2013, in Plos One, Dr. Pervin’s group used this model to study the complex relationship between mammary cancer stem cells and vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with increased risk of breast cancer. The lab’s findings suggest that vitamin D therapy in breast cancer might be more efficacious when given in combination with drugs targeting mammary stem cancer cells, though this needs to be supported by future prospective clinical trials.

In another paper in press in British Journal of Cancer, Dr. Pervin’s group studied key signaling pathways that promote tumor initiation. They found that down-regulation of a specific protein, survivin, could be an important early event in the initiation of breast tumor formation, specifically when triggered by free radicals, substances which can damage many cellular structures, including DNA. Dr. Pervin’s work is currently supported by a five-year 1.2 million dollar grant funded by the National Cancer Institute to examine the role of the protein signaling molecules ERK1 and ERK 2 in aggressive human breast tumors.

Dr. Pervin calls CDU, “a great academic institution, located where it is needed the most.” She is passionate about mentoring student researchers, particularly minority students from King Drew High School, CDU post-baccalaureate students, and Dominguez Hill masters students. Notes Dr. Pervin, “My objective is to open doors in translational breast cancer research for students, especially from the community that we serve at CDU”.

Pervin S, Hewison M, Braga M, Tran L, Chun R, Karam A, Chaudhuri G, Norris K, Singh R. Down-regulation of vitamin d receptor in mammospheres: implications for vitamin d resistance in breast cancer and potential for combination therapy. PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e53287. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0053287. Epub 2013 Jan 14. PubMed PMID: 23341935; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3544824.