SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

When med school didn’t work out, she turned to math to fight cancer

BY Joanna Gagis, Producer/Correspondent |

The moment her grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, Antonina Mitrofanova knew she would spend her life fighting the disease.

“I always wanted to help people since I was a child. I was born and grew up in Ukraine. When I was 9, Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened, and the next day my grandfather said, ‘I cannot stay home. I have to go and help,'” she said.

After his diagnosis, Mitrofanova decided to pursue a degree in medicine. But when the love of her life moved to America, she chose to leave Ukraine and her medical degree behind to join him.

“It was hard for me to continue my medical degree. It was very, very expensive, so I was thinking how else can I help people? What else can I do?” Mitrofanova said.

So she turned to another passion — math and computers — still with the mission to fight the cancer that plagued her grandfather. She now works as an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Health Professions.

“I went into computer science with the thought that I want to connect it to oncology. I want to connect it to my medical background,” Mitrofanova said.

Using big data, she developed an algorithm that could tell a patient whether they’ll respond well to Androgen Deprivation Therapy, or ADT. It’s a therapy that has proved to be very effective for men with prostate cancer.

“So we start with two groups of patients. One group of patients that responded really well to Androgen Deprivation, and another group of patients that responded very poorly,” she said.

But not every patient responds to it well.

“Some patients may not be responsive to Androgen Deprivation Therapy as effective as others, and it may be that, genetically, their cells are programmed not to be as receptive to the Androgen Deprivation Therapy as others are. So it is actually quite useful to know ahead of time, which patients will respond better or not,” said urological oncologist at Holy Name Medical Center Dr. Raul Parra “And you only know if they have some resistance once they fail to progress on the treatment.”

“We’ve identified five markers that differentiate treatment response. We take a small piece of that biopsy and screen it, send it to the lab that profiles the small piece of biopsy for specifically these five markers. So we tell the patient, let’s say all the markers are up, there is a high chance that you will fail Androgen Deprivation. This is not a good therapy for you.”

While Mitrofanova waits for patent approval on the project, she’s already working on the next phase, which is applying it to other cancers, like breast and lung. She said she already has patients who are eager to use the program, and she’s eager to start working with physicians around the state.