René Bernards studied adenovirus transformation for his PhD research with Alex van der Eb in Leiden. He joined the laboratory of Robert Weinberg at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, USA for his postdoctoral training. He was appointed assistant Professor at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in 1988. In 1992 he joined the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. In 1994 he was also appointed part time professor of molecular carcinogenesis at Utrecht University, The Netherlands.
His major scientific accomplishments include the development of MammaPrint, the first molecular diagnostic test for personalized treatment of breast cancer that has been used clinically since 2004 to select patients for adjuvant therapy. Recently, MammaPrint was validated in a large phase III clinical study, which demonstrated that over 100,000 women in the EU and US that are treated with chemotherapy for early breast cancer annually can safely forego this toxic treatment without loss of survival benefit.
His laboratory also developed the first shRNA vector for gene silencing in mammalian cells and used this vector to create the first genome-scale library of shRNA vectors, enabling genome-wide loss of function genetic screens in mammalian cells. His laboratory has used this vector collection to identify the PI3K pathway as a major determinant of resistance to herceptin in breast cancer. His laboratory also used genetic screens to identify a number of particularly powerful drug combinations for the treatment of cancer, based on the concept of synthetic lethality. This work identified the combination of a BRAF inhibitor and an EGFR inhibitor as effective for the treatment of BRAF mutant colon cancer. There are currently eight clinical trials ongoing that test the efficacy of the combination therapies suggested by genetic screens from his laboratory.
He received several awards for his research, including the Pezcoller Foundation-FECS Recognition for Contribution to Oncology, the Ernst W. Bertner Award for Cancer Research from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the ESMO Lifetime Achievement Award in Translational Research in Breast Cancer, the Spinoza award from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and the Queen Wilhelmina Research Prize from the Dutch Cancer Society. He is also a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and received the Academy Professor Prize from this organization in 2013.