Maja Oktay, MD/Ph.D., is a physician-scientist. She is a board-certified anatomical pathologist and cytopathologist with a Ph.D. and post-doctoral training in cancer cell biology and cell signaling pathways. Her major interests are in cancer cell biology, the biology of breast cancer progression and metastasis, the effect of chemotherapy and endocrine therapy on the tumor microenvironment, racial disparity in cancer, as well as development of prognostic and predictive molecular biomarkers. Her work is based on the analysis of the cancer microenvironment using mouse models of cancer, intravital multiphoton imaging, and digital pathology as well as minimally invasive procedures for diagnosis and prognosis of human malignancies, such as fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy.
Dr. Oktay is a translational (bench to bedside) researcher in Einstein’s Integrated Imaging Program where basic science findings are applied to clinical care through the integration and validation of high-resolution optical imaging with currently used clinical imaging methods.
Dr. Oktay established New York Pathology Oncology Group (NYPOG) and is the current director of NYPOG (https://einsteinmed.org/research/groups/ny-pathology-oncology/).
Contribution to Science:
Maja Oktay studies breast cancer microenvironments responsible for metastasis. In particular, the function of breast cancer intravasation sites called TMEM (Tumor MicroEnvironment of Metastasis) and its interactions with pro-metastatic Mena-expressing tumor cells and cancer stem cells. Using fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy obtained breast cancer cells from patients she determined that invasive cancer cells (MenaINV expressing) and cancer cells expressing stem cell markers correlate with TMEM score breast cancers from patients indicating mechanistic involvement of MenaINV, and stemness in TMEM function in human breast cancer. In addition, using FNA obtained cancer cells from patients for functional in vitro trans-endothelial migration studies she demonstrated that TMEM sites and MenaINV expression in cancer cells are essential for cancer cell trans-endothelial migration in all clinical subtypes of breast cancer. She also participated in the prospective validation study which demonstrated that TMEM score is a predictive marker of metastasis in breast cancer patients, as well as in the study which demonstrated that TMEM sites are functional sites of transient blood vessel permeability and as such the only sites of breast cancer cell intravasation. In addition, she led a study that established that commonly used chemotherapy for breast cancer can induce TMEM and MenaINV mediated pro-metastatic changes in breast cancer in the neoadjuvant setting and demonstrated that these changes can be reversed by Tie2 inhibition. More recently, Dr. Oktay co-led a study that elucidated the mechanism of induction of stem and invasive breast cancer cells. Using high-resolution intravital microscopy and a biosensor for cancer stem cells (CSC) the team also observed that CSCs display disseminating phenotype and using mouse and patient-derived breast cancers determined that tumor microenvironments, in particular around TMEM doorways, are sites of CSC induction.
Throughout her career, Dr. Oktay served as a mentor to junior colleagues. She trained numerous individuals at various stages of their careers including high school students, MD/Ph.D. students, pathology residents, and cytopathology fellows, as well as post-doctoral fellows and junior faculty. During the past 10 years, she trained 5 pre- and 15 post-doctorates, all of whom have continued in research or research-related careers. Moreover, she has been mentoring T32 fellows since 2015, with 7 trainees in total. Most of the training interactions have resulted in publications or grant submissions and funded grants.