Adrienne Nugent, PhD, has always loved a good puzzle. Growing up, she enjoyed solving math problems, and in college at Duke University, chemistry inspired her puzzle-solving passion. She continued to apply this skill as she earned her PhD in genetics and genomics, also at Duke.
Since then, she has found a through-line between her love for puzzles and her love for working directly with patients. In May 2022, she joined Cancer Commons, where her penchant for problem solving has become a key component of her deeply compassionate and insightful approach to helping people with cancer.
Here, Dr. Nugent shares her unique perspective on cancer research and advocacy.
How did your path lead you to Cancer Commons?
My background is in academic research, with a focus on genetics and genomics. I started my career with fellowships at the National Institutes of Health, but my husband was in the Air Force, so we moved frequently. We lived for a time in Hampton, Virginia, and fortunately for me, Hampton University has a small cancer research center where I was able to work.
Instead of focusing solely on molecular science, my team at Hampton studied health disparities in genetics and genomics. It was truly eye opening to learn about this whole new side of my field and how it really connects to the community.
Next, I helped to lead a development team with the company Invitae, which involved the genomic analytic work that I love. But I missed the human connection. It’s one thing to read a paper and apply the results to a patient, but there can be a gap in communication between the scientist, physician, patient, and caregiver. When I heard about Cancer Commons, I realized I could fill that gap.
I love being part of an organization where we can take the full picture of each patient—their personal situation, their wants, needs, limitations; we can factor all of that in.
What does a typical day at Cancer Commons look like for you?
I get news alerts from journals that synthesize many of the latest results of ongoing cancer research, so every morning I consult them to stay up to date. Then, I often spend much of my day focusing on individual patients who have come to Cancer Commons for help. That means I’ll read through their medical histories and genomic profiling results, interpret that data, research their options, communicate my findings to patients, answer their questions, and so on. I work mostly with people dealing with cancers of the central nervous system and lung cancer.
I also help run a pilot project for people with glioblastoma, in which we invite patients to have their cases reviewed in a virtual tumor board—a group of experts who weigh in on each case and each patient’s options. Each of these patients is at the point where they need to make a treatment decision, so our physicians will weigh in, and then we’ll keep in touch with the patient so we can see what decision they made and their outcomes. Ultimately, we’ll analyze how we were able to help and use this information to guide our services for future glioblastoma patients. We plan to then replicate this for other cancer types.
I understand you are involved in additional research projects at Cancer Commons. What are some of the other topics you’re exploring?
For one, I’m hoping that our data will help reveal some of the gaps or barriers in access to care, as well as positive stories of ways that people were able to access clinical trials or compassionate use of drugs, and other success stories. We know we have this information anecdotally—for instance, we’ve had patients who thought a clinical trial far from home was out of financial reach, but then the drug company paid their airfare and lodging—but we want to address these stories scientifically with an eye towards scaling the help we provide.
We also want to quantify and comprehensively describe how, exactly, an organization like Cancer Commons can make a difference in patient care. Based on our data, we’d love to be able to develop a set of best practices for this type of service and how it can maximize benefits for patients.
Why is it important for Cancer Commons to be involved in research?
What makes Cancer Commons unique is that we get such a comprehensive view of the patients we work with. We have all this wonderful knowledge, and we want to share it. Academic research is so valuable but can be a bit limiting; here we have a much more open door to conduct really exciting research that is patient- and caregiver-driven. It’s a rare opportunity to be at the nexus of patients, caregivers, physicians, and scientists.
We have a nice mix of patients being treated at academic centers versus community settings, giving us insights into so many practice patterns and patient experiences. We have a unique ability to really be on the ground, leverage this untapped wealth of information from patients, and understand what’s happening in so many different places at once.
All of this is only possible because we have some truly amazing patients. I want to pay tribute and express gratitude for the patients who take the time and trust us with their stories so that we can help others, because the more we learn from each other, the more we all benefit. I am honored to have the opportunity to listen to patients who may otherwise feel like they’re not being heard and try to be that voice linking patients and caregivers to scientific research and academic medicine.
What strikes you the most about working with cancer patients?
Sometimes it’s challenging because there are some really tough cases. But what I’m seeing is humanity coming through. When patients come to us, they have the opportunity to write a little blurb about themselves. And so often, people choose to be positive. They could be barely able to walk, move, eat, talk, and they might say, “I’m feeling pretty good, and I want to look for another line of treatment.”
We also have this really amazing set of patients who want to share information that could help others, like recommending great doctors they found or information their care team provided that they want to pass along to us. And of course, I’m learning from them, because they fit into this bigger picture of cancer care, advocacy, and public health.
What initially drew you to cancer research?
My mother was actually a molecular biologist, and my sister and I would sometimes come visit her lab. At the time, we were more interested in the ping-pong table in the break room, but I think the passion of the scientists definitely seeped in; you could tell they just loved working there. In college, I majored in chemistry and couldn’t get enough of it, it was like a puzzle. Later I became interested in genetics because it was also like a puzzle to figure out the consequences of different mutations.
I was drawn to cancer research in particular as a result of witnessing my best friend’s younger brother receive a leukemia diagnosis in my senior year of high school. He’s doing phenomenally well today, but at the time, it was heartbreaking and life-changing. A very close friend of my family also passed away after a long battle with cancer when I was a freshman in college. These events definitely came at a formative time in my life and ultimately influenced my interest in studying cancer.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I love being outside with my family, hiking or exploring, going to the lake or the beach or the pool. I have four little kids who keep me super active. I was an avid triathlete for a while, and I still run a lot these days. Also, like a lot of scientists, I love to bake—the kitchen is kind of like a lab, right? And, of course, I love a good jigsaw puzzle.