Researcher explores link between bodily rhythm, breast cancer

All living entities have a circadian clock that is an important part of maintaining optimal health. The circadian rhythm is a roughly 24-hour cycle in the biochemical, physiological, or behavioral processes.

Carla Finkielstein (front with arms crossed) works with undergraduate, graduate, and high school students in her lab. Carla Finkielstein (front with arms crossed) works with undergraduate, graduate, and high school students in her lab.

Although circadian rhythms originate from within our bodies, they are synchronized to the environment by external cues, including daylight. Carla Finkielstein, assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, has launched a research project to study how changes in circadian rhythms may contribute to the development of breast cancer in women.

Disrupting the clock

“If we were to generate a panel of markers that we can follow regularly for a woman who works night shifts, it would enable us to record changes in circadian-controlled genes and thus predict whether a person is at risk of developing breast cancer,” Finkielstein said. “If we see abnormal changes, all we need to do is to alter this person’s work schedule. It can’t be any easier than that to prevent cancer.”

A second, 24-hour oscillating system in all living things is devoted to controlling cell division and mediates the entry and exit from a cell cycle. 


Carla Finkielstein works in her lab. Carla Finkielstein studies a petri dish in her lab.

Proper timing of cell division is a major factor contributing to the regulation of normal cell growth and is a fundamental process in the development of most cancers. 

Finkielstein’s research team investigates some of the basic mechanisms that regulate cell cycles, the contribution of environmental cues that ensure timely progression through the cycles, and how both the circadian and cell cycles are interlocked at the molecular level.

“Our research explores ways in which the loss of circadian function impairs the death of cells in the cell cycle and leads to the accumulation of damaged, or cancerous, cells,” she said. “Outcomes from this work will challenge our current view of how signals are sensed in the cell and how decisions are made that influence cell cycle transitions.”

Humanizing science

Finkielstein’s work in cellular processes that affect tumors has received private funding from the Susan G. Komen and Avon Foundations. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation (VBCF) and in fall 2009 invited breast cancer survivors to speak to her students.

“Bringing the advocates to class was a perfect way to humanize science,” she said. “I want our students to understand that what we do is not in a test tube, but is going to impact someone else’s life.”

Finkielstein said it is not uncommon for women to contact her lab volunteering to donate a tissue sample from a tumor so that the researchers can characterize the molecules that cause the disease better.

“It really puts my research in a different perspective,” she said. “I respect them tremendously, and I feel I owe them an answer.”

Support from the National Science Foundation 

Finkielstein’s research is also supported by a $1.1 million Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). These awards are made to outstanding young faculty members who present career development plans that effectively integrate research and education with an emphasis on combining the excitement of research with inspired teaching. The CAREER program offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards for outstanding faculty early in their professions.


Carla Finkielstein works in her lab. Carla Finkielstein works with a series of tubes in her lab. ''I want our students to understand that what we do is not in a test tube, but is going to impact someone else's life,'' she said.

Finkielstein’s research initiative also involves the recruitment and training of high school students and college undergraduates through research internships, which provide one-on-one, hands-on laboratory experiences for students. 

“Students are the heart of my lab, and we need both graduate and undergraduates,” Finkielstein said.  She noted that undergraduates ask questions that might otherwise go unnoticed.

“I think the exchange of knowledge in a casual conversation is what leads to new ideas,” she said. “I encourage my students to develop their own projects. Right or wrong, they need to try new things and take a risk.”

Finkielstein acknowledged that her awards are the recognition of all those who work to eradicate cancer.

“I look forward to 20 years from now when my daughter reads about breast cancer in a textbook as if it were an old story,” she said. “That would be the best award ever.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Catherine Doss at (540) 231-5035.

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