Rebecca L. Aft, MD, PhD, a highly esteemed breast cancer surgeon and researcher, has been named the inaugural Jeffrey F. Moley Professor of Endocrine and Oncologic Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
In addition to being a compassionate advocate for her patients, Aft is noted for her translational and clinical research program that is focused on understanding how breast cancer spreads, developing biomarkers for metastatic progression and identifying new targets for prevention.
Aft, who joined the Washington University faculty in 1997, specializes in innovative, minimally invasive breast cancer surgery. Her surgical practice also includes general surgery and caring for patients with melanoma and sarcoma. She treats patients at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, and at the John Cochran Veterans Hospital, part of the Washington University-affiliated VA St. Louis Health Care System, where she is chief of general surgery.
The professorship was established by the Department of Surgery to honor Moley, a world-class Washington University surgeon and researcher who died in 2017 at age 64. Moley was a pioneer in the research and treatment of multiple endocrine neoplasia, rare inherited syndromes that often cause an aggressive form of thyroid cancer, and other endocrine diseases in children and adults. He was also a beloved mentor and colleague.
Aft was installed in the spring by David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor.
“Dr. Rebecca Aft is deeply deserving of this professorship,” Perlmutter said. “She checks every box for what can be accomplished in a surgeon-scientist career, is loved by her patients and still searching for better answers through her cutting-edge work in the laboratory. I can think of no tribute more fitting to honor Dr. Aft and the legacy of Dr. Jeff Moley than a professorship in his name that recognizes the importance of relentless research initiatives to improve our effectiveness in preventing and treating patients with cancer.
“This installation is even more meaningful because we are celebrating the wonderful life, career and accomplishments of Dr. Jeffrey Moley,” he added.
Moley was part of a Washington University research team that identified the inherited genetic mutations responsible for multiple endocrine neoplasia. He helped to advance a surgical procedure that involves surgical removal of the thyroid and parathyroid glands, based on genetic testing, with the goal of preventing the cancer from developing. He also operated on patients with recurrent thyroid cancer and other endocrine diseases.
Besides treating patients at Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, Moley worked for more than three decades for the VA St. Louis Health Care System, including as head of surgical services. He was an associate director at Siteman Cancer Center.
Aft’s research, which has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has focused on characterizing and identifying biomarkers for breast cancer tumor cells that have spread to other organs or throughout the body. Aft has led several phase 2 clinical trials that have investigated potential therapeutic interventions to prevent metastatic disease by targeting aggressive tumor cells.
Her current research involves studying the development of biomarkers to predict breast cancer recurrence, and single cell sequencing of disseminated breast tumor cells, with the goal of personalized treatment.
Aft’s clinical interests include reducing or eliminating chemotherapy and other aggressive therapies in older breast cancer patients and performing robotic mastectomies that preserve the nipples. At John Cochran, where she co-directs the VA’s Breast Program, she was instrumental in developing multidisciplinary care for breast cancer patients.
“Dr. Aft is an outstanding academic surgeon and has been a valued faculty member at Washington University for her entire career,” said John A. Olson Jr., MD, PhD, head of the Department of Surgery, and the William K. Bixby Professor of Surgery. “She is an exceptional surgeon and a gifted researcher. She is also a dedicated leader at the St. Louis VA. Dr. Aft embodies all of the qualities and values that Dr. Moley stood for, and he would have been proud to see her become the first Jeff Moley endowed professor.”
Aft earned her doctoral degree in 1983 in oncology from the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her medical degree in 1992 from Washington University. She completed her residency in surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in 1992 and then joined the WashU faculty.
“I am honored to hold the chair that celebrates Dr. Moley’s consummate career and incredible life,” Aft said. “He was a friend and mentor to a generation of surgical-scientists.”