The Pearl Basser Professorship cements a connection to drive change—and provide hope—for families affected by BRCA-related cancers.
By Laura M. Brennan
Katherine L. Nathanson, MD’93, grew up in a scholarly household. In grade school, she became fascinated by genetics and the idea of hereditary diseases, and that interest stayed with her. Today, as deputy director of Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center and director of genetics at the Basser Center for BRCA, she’s one of the world’s foremost experts in cancer genetics and genomics.
Shari Potter, C’87, was raised by a mother who instilled the value of volunteering and giving back. When Shari’s older sister, Faith, died of ovarian cancer caused by a BRCA genetic mutation, unbeknownst to either of them, her family and Nathanson’s were set on a trajectory to connect.
Last year, Shari and her husband, Len, established the Pearl Basser Professorship in BRCA-Related Research, and Nathanson was named its inaugural chairholder.
A Love of Science
No doubt Nathanson’s parents, both in academia, played a big role in her journey to becoming a scientist: not everyone can say they’ve been aware of grant deadlines since they were little. In high school, Nathanson spent one summer vacation taking a course in molecular biology, and another working in the Penn lab of microbiology professor Susan Weiss, PhD.
These experiences led her to a BA in biology from Haverford College and, eventually, an MD from Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Since then, she has risen to become one of Penn’s most distinguished faculty leaders—at a time when the exploding field of genetics is reframing medicine.
But, as Nathanson tells it, that hasn’t always been the case.
“When I interviewed for residency and said I wanted to do genetics, they thought I was out of my mind,” she recalls. “No one could understand why.” At the time, genetics was relegated primarily to pediatrics and dysmorphology, or birth defects, and considered a strange choice for an internist. (Even today, there are not many internists/geneticists, with fewer than 100 in the U.S.)
Still, Nathanson persisted and went on to become the first internist to train in genetics at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the first person hired into the Genetics Division of the Department of Medicine at Penn. Gene therapy pioneer Jim Wilson, MD, PhD, who heads Penn’s Gene Therapy Program, brought her on. Wilson is also the Rose H. Weiss Orphan Disease Center Director’s Professor and Director of the Orphan Disease Center.
“It’s hard to imagine what a different time it was; no one knew what to do with me,” Nathanson remembers. But she knew what she wanted to do. “Understanding how things can vary with inheritance, and the science around genetics—I just loved it.”
Creating a Legacy of Hope
“The genetics component of Basser’s mission is really important and it’s where the future of medicine lies,” says Len Potter. “Dr. Nathanson is a brilliant, creative, and beautiful person, and we’re thrilled that she’s the new Pearl Basser Professor.”
The professorship is named for Shari’s mother, who died in 2017. “My mother constantly volunteered, giving back to our synagogue, Hadassah (a Jewish women’s benevolent organization), the Board of Elections, the Franklin Institute…,” recalls Shari, a Philadelphia native.
The endowed chair will augment the work of Nathanson and the Abramson Cancer Center’s Basser Center for BRCA, the world’s first center dedicated solely to advancing research and raising awareness surrounding BRCA-related cancers. BRCA stands for BReast CAncer susceptibility gene, and it increases the risk of breast, ovarian, prostate, and pancreatic cancers. There are two different genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, distinguished by the particular chromosome on which they are located.
The Basser Center was established in 2012 by Shari’s sister and brother-in-law, Mindy and Jon Gray C’92. Its creation was inspired by the loss of Mindy and Shari’s 44-year-old sister. The Grays met as Penn undergraduates and have been supporters of the University since they graduated, having also made gifts to undergraduate financial aid, Kelly Writers House, and campus renovation projects.
“When we lost Faith, it felt very dark,” recalls Shari. “We were all obviously devastated, but when Mindy and Jon created the Basser Center, it gave us the hope that if we all work really hard by bringing together an incredible team of people, the world doesn't have to lose any more Faiths.”
‘No One Has Really Done It This Way Before’
With this one aim in mind, the Potters have been pivotal champions of the Basser Center and, together with the Grays, have mounted a full-scale charge against BRCA-related cancers. “It’s this goal of beating cancer—particularly BRCA-related and other hereditary cancers—through research, clinical care, and outreach in a way that no one has really done before,” says Len.
In addition to establishing the chair, the Potters founded and endowed the Basser Global Prize, a $100,000 award given each year to a visionary scientist who has advanced BRCA1/2-related research. The prize is presented at the annual Basser Center Scientific Symposium, at which renowned BRCA1/2 scientists, clinicians, geneticists, and genetic counselors from around the world share their research with fellow investigators and care providers.
The Basser Center team leverages Penn's world-leading stature—and the enthusiastic support of University leadership—to reach way beyond the Penn campus. Not only does the Basser Center award research grants to Penn investigators (27, so far) but, in a move virtually unheard of in the halls of traditional academic medicine, it also gives grants to other leading research institutions in the US and abroad.
“Penn’s administration has allowed us to really break down barriers and walls and begin to make an impact around the world,” says Len. “We talk about bench to bedside breakthroughs, but the Basser Center really goes even wider than that, and everyone on the team has adopted that philosophy.”
In Seven Short Years
When the Basser Center was created, scientists at Penn were working hard to better understand the characteristics of tumors associated with a BRCA1/2 mutation. The resources of the Basser Center, and now the Pearl Basser Professorship, are allowing Nathanson and her team to delve deeper, learning exponentially more about the genetic, genomic, and immunology landscape of these tumors.
“As a child and as an adult, [my mother’s]
influence has stayed with me and I hope
I’ve passed that along to my children:
being grateful for what we have and
paying it forward.” – Shari Potter
One of the most exciting research developments includes PARP inhibitors, a therapy that can stop cancerous cells from repairing themselves. (PARP is an enzyme that helps repair DNA.) There are now four FDA approvals for PARP inhibitors to treat BRCA-related breast and ovarian cancers, and ovarian cancer at large. According to Nathanson, PARP inhibitors are being used at increasingly earlier stages of disease. “This is clearly very exciting and fantastic for our patients, which is what it’s all about,” she says.
A Legacy of Excellence and Impact
Susan Domchek, MD, Mindy Gray, Katherine L. Nathanson, MD, and Shari Potter
In creating the Pearl Basser Professorship in BRCA-Related Research, Shari and Len Potter join a proud legacy of benefactors. Since the first endowed chair at Penn Medicine was established in 1877, far-sighted donors have understood the considerable value they bring to sustaining scholarship, accelerating research, and advancing care. Endowed professorships assist in the recruitment and retention of distinguished faculty members, and the funds empower Penn’s physician-scientists to expand knowledge and develop treatments to improve patients’ lives. They also honor the remarkable individuals for whom they are named.
To learn more about the power of endowed professorships and discover how you can make a difference that is most meaningful to you—and the world—please contact Kathryn J. Griffo, Chief Advancement Officer, at (215) 898-0578 or email@example.com.
Scientists are continuing to learn more about the function of BRCA1/2, including how it might interact with the immune system, Nathanson adds. Basser Center physician-researchers are also developing a preventative vaccine, which has been shown to be safe and immunologically effective in clinical trials for BRCA-related and other cancers.
Besides research, increasing awareness is key to the Basser Center mission. BRCA mutations are carried by men and women, can be passed on to male and female children, and can be found with a genetic test using blood or saliva. “In this instance, knowledge is power,” says Shari. “If you know you have this genetic mutation, you can do something.” That’s why the Basser Center is focused on making people around the world aware of genetic counseling and testing, through innovative programs like “telegenetics,” a genetic counseling model that extends these services to communities with limited or no access to local counselors through the use of telephone or videoconferencing technologies.
For the Potters, the progress being made is a testament to the “wonderful energy of the Basser team, and the leadership of Susan Domchek, [MD],” the Basser Professor in Oncology and the center’s executive director. “It’s remarkable what you can do if you put great minds together and provide the resources they need,” says Shari. “In just seven years, we have made a difference.”
Two Families, One Goal
The importance of making a difference is a lesson Shari learned from Pearl Basser. “As a child and as an adult, her influence has stayed with me and I hope I’ve passed that along to my children: being grateful for what we have and paying it forward,” says Shari.
Pearl grew up with two deaf parents, both Russian immigrants, and a high school diploma was the extent of her education before marriage. It wasn’t until after she raised four children (Shari has a brother, too) that Pearl earned her degree at a community college. Shari’s dad, Phil, was reared in an orphanage and appreciated the German Jewish philanthropists who sustained the orphanage through the Depression—a gratitude that always stuck with him and that he imparted to his children.
For Nathanson, too, the influence of family has shaped her passions. Her father, virologist Neal Nathanson, MD, chaired Penn’s Department of Microbiology for 15 years, was the University’s vice provost for Research, and then vice dean for Global Health at the Perelman School of Medicine. Her mother, Constance Nathanson, PhD, is a professor of sociomedical science at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Nathanson’s path has also been informed by her late stepmother, Phoebe Starfield Leboy, PhD, a biochemist at Penn’s Dental School, who for 21 years was its only tenured female professor. As such, Leboy also made her mark as an activist for women in science, founding the Women for Equal Opportunity at the University of Pennsylvania, and organizing initiatives that led to other advances for women.
Proud to be part of a legacy of women leaders in science, Nathanson is also adamant about carrying it forward. “When I give talks, I make a point of telling young women that it’s possible to be a successful scientist and still have a family,” she says. “It’s so important to believe in what you do and follow your passion.”
And now, thanks to the Pearl Basser Professorship, these two families, both with deep Penn ties (and both with Penn undergraduates of their own), have intersected to find answers that will save countless lives.
“We’ve found a way to give back to the world in a way that is personal to us and will help future generations,” says Len. “We’re fueling the fire at the Basser Center with just one goal: let’s eradicate this.”