jeffrey weitzel md

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Weitzel, MD

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Jeffrey Weitzel, MD

The Cancer Crusader

Two decades ago, when Jeffrey Weitzel, MD, started seeing young Latina patients being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, he knew something needed to be done. "This was a huge threat to them and their families," says Weitzel, chief of the clinical cancer genomics division at City of Hope cancer center in Duarte, California. Although Latinas have a lower incidence of breast cancer overall, they're more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed before age 50. Weitzel suspected that inherited mutations of the BRCA genes played a role, but little data was available. So he did the research himself. He created a network of clinics, many in underserved communities, to provide cancer care; more than 90 percent of women who visited the clinics between 1998 and 2010 agreed to share their DNA information with Weitzel's team. They confirmed that certain mutations did indeed play a significant role in the development of breast and ovarian cancer in Latinas, particularly of Mexican descent.

In 2013, Weitzel's group published the largest study of Hispanic women in the U.S. with these cancers, examining the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in 746 families; 25 percent tested positive for harmful mutations (including a new BRCA1 mutation likely unique to people of Mexican descent). Thanks in part to this research, some Medicaid plans now cover genetic screening for the mutations—for Mexican Americans and everyone else. Today, Weitzel regularly travels to Latin America to share insights about adapting genetic research and cancer care to settings where technology varies widely. He says, "We want to identify these mutations in families before someone gets cancer, and now we're on our way."

—Bradley Rife