M.D. Goes Back to Class to Study Epidemiology

Posted: May 3, 2013 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: May 6, 2013 at 6:45 am

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By Michele McDonald

Mariaelena Pierbon. Photo courtesy of Mariaelena Pierbon

Mariaelena Pierobon. Photo courtesy of Mariaelena Pierobon

Already an accomplished breast cancer researcher in the College of Science, Mariaelena Pierobon, M.D., went back to class in the College of Health and Human Services to learn more about behaviors and risk factors surrounding disease.

She liked what she learned and stayed on to earn a master’s degree last year in public health with a concentration in epidemiology, which studies the patterns, causes and effects in both health and disease.

Pierobon has published two academic papers in the past several months with professors in the Department of Global and Community Health (GCH).

On a typical workday, Pierobon delves into the complexity of breast cancer at George Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM). She’s searching for answers to help patients with metastatic breast cancer –– these advanced tumors have spread to other organs, such as the liver, brain and bone and have limited response to conventional therapies such as chemotherapy. Patients are left with few, if any, options.

It was exploring the intricacies of cancer that left Pierobon, a native of Italy, to wonder about the people affected by disease. She wanted to learn about what their lifestyle and other factors could mean for their health.

Epidemiologists compile numbers to look for trends, not just in individuals but also in entire populations. “I like numbers a lot and learning why people get sick,” Pierobon says of one reason she chose to pursue her new degree. “It’s a different way of practicing medicine.”

Plus, she likes going to school. “I don’t miss the homework,” Pierobon says with a smile. “But I miss everything else. It was fun to go back to school.”

The coursework also forced her to become more adept at speaking and writing in English. “In class you have to overcome your accent,” she says.

She learned techniques from her professors that she can apply to her current job, which includes working with students. “For me, it also was an example of how important your teaching can be to a student,” Pierobon says, citing how she watched GCH associate professor Kathryn Jacobson coach students through difficult concepts.

A paper about drinking behavior and violence in Argentinian adolescents that Pierobon wrote with Jacobson was published this spring. In another study, Pierobon worked with global health assistant professor Cara Frankenfeld to explore the link between obesity and triple-negative breast cancer.

Pierobon also is making progress in the metastatic breast cancer study and expects the study, funded by the Side-Out Foundation, to be unveiled soon. Pierobon is identifying which drug targets are activated within each patient tumor so doctors can pinpoint treatment and use drugs already on the market. Pierobon’s team is building on the promise of personalized medicine by focusing on the molecular profile of the metastatic lesions.

“We hope that by providing physicians with detailed information on the mechanisms that are driving our patients’ tumors we can facilitate the selection of the most appropriate treatment,” Pierobon says. “We are trying to guide that decision by using the cutting-edge molecular technologies that were created in our laboratory to select among the FDA-approved drugs that might be the most promising for each patient.”

Write to Michele McDonald at mmcdon15@gmu.edu

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