When she arrived for freshman orientation at the University of North Texas, Dr. Amy Schade made a life-changing decision on a mere whim.

In high school, she had been a national-class debater and a serious student of history, but when it was time to break out in groups of prospective majors, she went in an entirely different direction – biology, of all things.

“I was just curious what the other majors were like,” Dr. Schade said recently. “I have no idea why I did that. It’s a certainly sort of a random decision I made, but it completely changed the trajectory of my life. It’s kind of crazy to think about that.”

Today, Dr. Schade is a Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School deeply immersed in a life-and-death (literally) struggle with cancer. Supported by a 2021 grant co-funded by WTA Charities ACEing Cancer and Cancer Research Racquet, through the American Cancer Society, Dr. Schade works 12-hour days in Harvard’s Cichowski Lab looking for ways to defeat metastatic Triple Negative Breast Cancer, one of the most virulent strains.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and WTA Charities has provided an opportunity to help fund and join the ongoing fight against cancer in women.

The money raised from the 2022 WTA Charities ACEing Cancer by Hologic campaign will go to co-funding another groundbreaking researcher through the American Cancer Society to be chosen at the end of the year. 

“There’s a big need in identifying these sorts of projects,” Dr. Schade said. “Donating to this grant will allow your funds to go directly into researchers’ projects that allow for the development of novel treatments for cancer.”

Her grant was given in the name of Czech tennis star and 1998 Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna who died in 2017 at the age of 49 due to cervical cancer. This year, the grant will be donated in the name of Jeanne Dubin, the sister of 18-time Grand Slam singles champion, Chris Evert, and a professional tennis player in her own right. Dubin died in 2020 from ovarian cancer, a diagnosis Evert would eventually face herself.

Dr. Schade’s journey began as a freshman researcher under associate professor Dr. Lee Hughes, who would become a long-term mentor. That was where she developed a growing interest in viruses. There was a summer internship at the University of Wisconsin and, eventually, the attainment of her PhD at Harvard studying viruses that cause cancer. Designing experiments, Schade said, was only part of the fascination.

“Setting up the hypothesis and learning the safe ways to test it,” she said. “That was satisfying – the logic part of it, which I kind of liked from debate. The other aspect I liked was the discovery, the idea that no one’s done this experiment before, and I’m seeing this right now.

“As I went through the degree, the creativity I really liked. You have some phenomenon that you’re studying and you can think creatively a bunch of different ways you can test the hypothesis. It’s a satisfying exercise.”

The 30-year-old is studying Triple Negative Breast Cancer, she added, because it’s the most aggressive form.  And because there is no targeted therapy for treatment, those presently afflicted move directly in to chemotherapy.  

“And so, we wanted to develop a therapy that could importantly induce tumor cell death and stop the progression of tumors,” Dr. Schade said. “A lot of cancer therapies slow tumor growth, so they don’t grow as fast. But the golden metric here is we want to see therapies that actually cause the tumors to shrink.”

The grant, Dr. Schade explained, allowed her to expand the scope of the research, increasing from one or two models to significantly more. Now she can implant a patient’s tumor directly into mice and determine what effect the experimental therapies have on the tumor. Several times a week, Dr. Schade monitors those tumors, but the bulk of the work is growing cancerous tumors in petri dishes and applying various combinations of drugs. Biochemical analysis allows Dr. Schade and her fellow researchers to understand the mechanism by which it kills the cells.

“The benefit of funding academic research,” Dr. Schade said, “is that we’re able to do experiments with drugs that pharmaceutical companies cannot. So my combination is using drugs from two different companies. They wouldn’t normally combine the two. We’re able to be autonomous that way and we can take the best drugs on market to attack these different pathways and come up with the best therapeutic option.”

The logical progression is a clinical trial. Phase One would determine whether the therapy is safe and tolerable. Phase Two would involve efficacy.

“There are a set of specific calculations that clinicians make to determine if there is a pathological response,” Dr. Schade said. “Or, a pathological complete response, which is the top badge – meaning there is no sign of the tumor left at all.”

Dr. Schade doesn’t have an extensive sports background but – surprise – she researched Novotna when she received the Cancer Research Racquet and ACEing Cancer grant.

“It’s a privilege to have a grant in honor of someone who has been at the top of her field,” she said. “I like learning about people who excel and what makes them tick.”

That elite group, of course, would include Dr. Amy Schade, whose next career step will involve seeking tenure track positions in a cancer center. Her ultimate goal is to continue in academic science – and lead her own research group.

Hologic and WTA shine a spotlight on women's health in Madrid