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Stars of Stanford Medicine: Driven to understand prostate cancer

This Stars of Stanford Medicine Q&A features Tanya Stoyanova, PhD, who studies prostate cancer.

Tanya Stoyanova, PhD, moved to the United States from her home country of Bulgaria to study genetics and cancer biology. Now an assistant professor of radiology at Stanford, you're most likely to find Stoyanova in her lab at the Canary Center at Stanford for Cancer Early Detection — or at the beach. I spoke with her to learn more.

How long have you been at Stanford?

I am a cancer biologist and I've been at the Department of Radiology since 2015.

How did you get interested in cancer?

We had a good family friend that had an 11-year-old daughter and she got brain cancer. It was a very sad story. That is when I decided I wanted to know more about it and to do something about it. I started looking into doing research. There aren't a lot of funds available for research in Bulgaria, so I came to the United States

What are you working on today?

I study mechanisms and genes that underlie prostate cancer initiation and progression. I study what makes the disease thrive during the first stage and spread to other organs and potentially cause the patient's death. My long-term goals are to find molecules (biomarkers) that will show us which patients will develop aggressive cancers early on and develop new therapies.

What is the biggest challenge in your field right now?

Prostate cancer is such a common disease. Approximately 12 percent of men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point, but about 28,000 men die from prostate cancer in the U.S. each year.

It’s a slowly progressing disease. Many men die with the disease, not from the disease, but also a lot of men die from the disease. The challenge is to be able to find out early on who are the patients that will develop an aggressive disease and who are the patients that will develop the disease but not die from it. For instance, a lot of patients get overtreated and other patients get inappropriately treated or not treated at all. We need better tools to predict at a very early stage who are the patients that will develop aggressive disease.

The other challenge is that we develop a lot of therapies for prostate cancer, but unfortunately they are not curative. They expand the lifespan of the patient, which is beneficial for the patient, but they eventually relapse. We need to develop therapies for the disease that will be curative.

What is the most fulfilling about your work?

Being able to think about something, come up with an idea, run to the lab and test the idea. To have that freedom is incredible. To have an idea and be able to actually test it — to me, it's very fulfilling.

How do you unwind?

I love running, walking, or biking near the beach. It’s extremely relaxing, especially during sunsets.

Do you have a favorite scientist?

My favorite scientist is Gregor Mendel, considered the founder of genetics. I got into cancer biology because of genetics. I was fascinated by the simple experiments that he did in plants to study what we know today as inheritance.

What are you reading right now and why?

I read mostly cancer-related scientific articles. It’s what I’m extremely passionate about — my favorite journal is Cancer Cell.

What are you favorite foods?

I eat a lot of fruit. I’m addicted to fruit. I also love French fries with feta cheese. It's not healthy but I love it.

What would you say is the best trip you’ve ever taken?

I like all my trips but the one that I really enjoyed was I went to Paris and Hempel, Germany around Christmas. I enjoyed it because of the Christmas market. The happiness that you see in people there is amazing.

Do you have a role model?

My two role models are my mentors: my PhD mentor, Pradip Rayhaudhuri, PhD, and my postdoctoral fellowship mentor, Owen Witte, MD. I really admire them as scientists — how organized and efficient they are and their ability to train and communicate with their trainees.

Stars of Stanford Medicine introduces readers to standout scholars in the School of Medicine.

Previously: Stars of Stanford Medicine: Amplifying signals to detect cancer early, Stars of Stanford Medicine: "Are people getting the right care?"  and Stars of Stanford Medicine: "It's my duty to give back"
Photo by Alyssa Tamboura

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