Authors Posts by Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

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With great power comes great criticism. The following is a hypothetical diary entry from beleaguered Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who faces routine presidential ire:

I don’t know how much longer I can take this. It’s not fair. Yes, I know my boss is angry, defensive and frustrated, but he’s always picking on me, calling me names. I think he wants to get rid of me.

The other day, he called me “scared stiff” and “missing in action.”

Gosh, that doesn’t sound nice, now, does it?

What’s worse? He didn’t say it to my face: He wrote it on Twitter, where the whole world can see his feelings.

I’ve been turning the other cheek all this time, but I’m running out of cheeks. What can I do?

Maybe I’ll develop a new hobby. I’ll practice that “lock her up” chant that tickles me so. I won’t do it in public. When I’m alone in my soundproof shower, I can say it quietly. I can get a small doll and look down on it, terrifying it the way my boss tries to intimidate me.

I was confirmed as attorney general by a 52-47 vote in the Senate. Now, I know it’s not quite as stunning and exciting as that electoral college win by the guy who keeps insulting me, but it’s still pretty cool and it was a close vote. You don’t hear me telling everyone about the 52 votes I got, the way my boss repeats, all these months later, that he got 304 electoral college votes.

I’m working hard, even though I recused myself from that Russia investigation. I’m just not sure how much more of these harsh insults I can take.

I could resign. I could ride away from this situation into something much more fun and less stressful, like zip lining over an alligator pit. I’m just kidding, of course. There are no alligator pit zip lines but there are some people I’d like to see trying that. “Lock her up, lock her up!” Wait, I got distracted.

I’m serving my country, but it just doesn’t seem rewarding. So, today, I did an internet search, “What to do if your boss is out to get you,” and I found an article in TopResume, a professional résumé service.

It said I should evaluate the situation and see if I’m doing enough. Well, yeah, I am, so check on me, right? Or, maybe, check plus.

Then, it said I should understand my boss’s issues and communication style, and it linked to another article that suggested ways to neutralize a Machiavellian boss. It said I should present my ideas in a way that allows him to take credit. So far, I’m not sure I’ve done that. Then it says I should give him credit but, again, I don’t know what he wants credit for?

My boss also seems like a seagull at times, diving in, depositing steaming piles of advice and then taking off, leaving the rest of us to clean up his mess. Now, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but this sounds a bit like my boss.

I’m also supposed to create a written record so I can go to human resources. I’m not sure what HR office I could approach these days. I’ll say one thing for Twitter: It sure does allow me to keep track of all the things he’s said about me.

Oh, and it also suggested I see the situation as a learning opportunity, helping me be a better boss. I guess if I were ever in his shoes, I wouldn’t need to criticize people publicly.

That’s it for now, diary. Until tomorrow, that is, when he attacks me again.

Michael Schatz. Photo courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

By Daniel Dunaief

What if an enormous collection of Scrabble letters were spread out across the floor? What if several letters came together to form the word “victory”? Would that mean something? On its own, the word might be encouraging, depending on the context.

Genetic researchers are constantly looking at letters for the nucleotides adenine, guanine, cytosine and tyrosine, searching for combinations that might lead to health problems or, eventually, diseases like cancer.

For many of these diseases, seeing the equivalent of words like “cancer,” “victory” and “predisposition” are helpful, but they are missing a key element: context.

W. Richard McCombie

Michael Schatz, an adjunct associate professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory who is also the Bloomberg distinguished associate professor at Johns Hopkins, and W. Richard McCombie, a professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, use long-read sequencing technology developed by Pacific Biosciences to find genetic variants that short-read sequencing missed.

The two scientists recently teamed up to publish their work on the cover of the August issue of the journal Genome Research. They provided a highly detailed map of the structural variations in the genes of a breast cancer cell.

“This is one of many covers [of scientific journals] that we are pleased and proud of,” said Jonas Korlach, the chief scientific officer at Menlo Park, California-based Pacific Biosciences. 

“This is another example of how long-read sequencing can give you a more complete picture of the genome and allow researchers to get a more complete understanding of the underlying biology and here, specifically, that underlies the transition from a health to a cancer disease state,” he said.

Schatz and McCombie were able to see fine detail and the context for those specific sequences. They were able to see about 20,000 structural variations in the cancer genome. “It’s like using Google maps,” explained Schatz in a recent interview. “You can see the overall picture of the country and then you can see roads and zoom out.”

In the context of their genetics work, this means they could see large and small changes in the genome. Only about a quarter of the variants they found could be detected without long-read technology.

In breast cancer, scientists currently know about a family of genes that could be involved in the disease. At this point, however, they may be unaware of other variants that are in those genes. Schatz is hoping to develop more sensitive diagnostics to identify more women at risk.

People like actress and advocate Angelina Jolie have used their genetic screens to make informed decisions about their health care even before signs of any problems arise. Jolie had a double mastectomy after she learned she had the mutation in the BRCA1 gene that put her at an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer.

By studying the sequence of genes involved in breast cancer, researchers may be able to identify other people that are “at high risk based on their genetics,” Schatz said.

Knowing what’s in your genome can help people decide on potentially prophylactic treatments. 

When people discover that they have breast cancer, they typically choose a specific type of treatment, depending on the subtype of cancer.

“There’s a lot of interest to divide [the genetic subtypes] down into even finer detail,” said Schatz, adding, “There’s also interest in transferring those categories into other types of cancer, to give [patients] better treatments if and when the disease occurs.”

The reduced cost of sequencing has made these kinds of studies more feasible. In 2012, this study of the breast cancer genome would have cost about $100,000. To do this kind of research today costs closer to $10,000 and there’s even newer sequencing technology that promises to be even less expensive, he said.

Pacific Biosciences continues to see a reduction in the cost of its technology. The company plans to introduce a new chip next year that has an eightfold higher capacity, Korlach said.

Schatz said the long-term goal is to apply this technique to thousands of patients, which could help detect and understand genetic patterns. He and McCombie are following up on this research by looking at patients at Northwell Health.

In this work, Schatz’s group wrote software that helped decipher the code and the context for the genetic sequence.

“The instrument doesn’t know anything about genes or cancer,” he said. “It produces raw data. We write software that can take those sequences and compare them to the genome and look for patterns to evaluate what this raw data tells us.”

Schatz described McCombie, with whom he speaks every day or so, as his “perfect complement.” He suggested that McCombie was one of the world’s leaders on the experimental side, adding, “There’s a lot of artwork that goes into running the instruments. My lab doesn’t have that, but his lab does.”

Working with his team at CSHL and Johns Hopkins has presented Schatz with numerous opportunities for growth and advancement.

“Cold Spring Harbor is an internationally recognized institute for basic science, while Johns Hopkins is also an internationally recognized research hospital and university,” he explained. He’s living in the “best of both worlds,” which allows him to “tap into amazing people and resources and capacities.”

Korlach has known Schatz for at least a decade. He said he’s been “really impressed with his approach,” and that Schatz is “highly regarded by his peers and in the community.”

Schatz is also a “terrific mentor” who has helped guide the development of the careers of several of his former students, Korlach said.

Down the road, Schatz also hopes to explore the genetic signature that might lead to specific changes in a cancer, transforming it from an organ-specific disease into a metastatic condition.

Is driving uninspiring for the next generation?

My daughter recently got her license and my son is attending driver’s education classes so he can join his sister behind the wheel. This should be cause for celebration for them, right? Nope.

When I ask my daughter if she wants to drive somewhere, she often shrugs and says, “Nah, that’s OK, you can drive.”

I recently took a long drive with my son, where I pointed out the magnificent trees along the side of the road and where I couldn’t help noticing the license plates of cars from Alaska, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Oregon, just to name a few.

“Dad,” my son interjected, after the pitch of my voice rose when I saw the one from Alaska, “you really like license plates.”

No, he doesn’t get it, just as I don’t get his generation.

When I got my license, I couldn’t wait to visit my friends, to go to the movies, to drive to West Meadow Beach where I had spent so much of my time walking, jogging or biking. Driving meant I no longer had to count the curves until I was at the beach. I could also exhaust myself in the waves and run out to the end of the magnificent sandbar, which seemed to stretch halfway to Connecticut, without worrying about leaving the beach before sunset so I could get home in the light.

I could also offer to pick up my friends. I could drive to their houses, knock on their doors, show off my license to their parents and then laugh my way into the car with a friend, who would turn on the radio to music. It wasn’t the boring nonstop news stations that my parents listened to — and which I now play in the car when I’m alone.

I could drive to The Good Steer in Lake Grove and meet someone for a burger and a mountain of onion rings. I could make the car as hot or cold as I wanted. A driver’s license meant independence, freedom and maturity. I didn’t have to wait for anyone.

But, no, my children and, from what I understand, many kids just aren’t as enthralled with the opportunity to get a license. For starters, as we have told them endlessly from the time we handed them their first wonderful-terrible device, they can’t use their cellphones when they are driving.

When we drive, they can ignore the road signs and street signs. They don’t have to search the side of the road for deer, turtles or the rare and exciting fox. They can chat with their friends, who are similarly indifferent to their immediate surroundings, while the car, driven by someone else, magically carries them to their next destination.

We must have taken them to so many places where they wanted to go that they had no great urge to get behind the wheel and drive themselves. I know my mom was a chauffeur, too, driving the three of us hither and yon, but maybe we haven’t said to our children, “You can go when you can drive,” often enough.

Maybe all the FaceTime and Skype time means that they can see and laugh with their friends without leaving the comfort of their home. They can’t bowl, see a movie or drink an Orange Julius, but they can hang out together while being in different places.

Access to Uber and Lyft may also have reduced the need for them to drive.

Then again, maybe it’s much simpler than that. I recently asked my son why he wasn’t more excited about driving.

“Because,” he sighed, “when I get my license, you’ll ask me to do stuff.”

From left, Peter Tonge with Eleanor Allen and Fereidoon Daryaee. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

The journey begins at one point and ends at another. What’s unclear, however, is the process that led from beginning to end. That’s where Peter Tonge, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Radiology at Stony Brook University’s School of Medicine, recently discovered important details.

Working with a protein called dronpa, Tonge wanted to know how the protein changed configurations as it reacted to light. There was more than one theory on how this process worked, Tonge said. “Our studies validated one of the previous hypotheses,” he said. Structural changes occur on different time scales. With a team of collaborators, Tonge was able to follow the photoreaction from absorption to the final activated form of the photoreceptor.

The technique Tonge used is called infrared spectroscopy. Through this approach, he looks at the vibration in molecules. People generally “have this picture of a molecule that isn’t moving,” he said. “In fact, atoms in the molecule are vibrating, like balls on a spring going backwards and forwards.”

Tonge uses the technique to look at vibrations before and after the absorption of light and subtracts the two. “People knew what the structure of dronpa was at the beginning and they knew the final structure,” but they had only developed educated theories about the transition from one state to another, he explained. The application of this work isn’t immediate.

“The knowledge we gained will be a foundation that will be combined with other knowledge,” Tonge said. Theoretically, scientists or drug companies can redesign the protein, fine-tuning its light-sensitive properties.

Tonge’s lab, which includes 11 graduate students, two postdoctoral researchers, two undergraduates and six high school students, explores several different scientific questions. They are studying how proteins use the energy in a photon of light to perform different biological functions.

In optogenetics, scientists have developed ways to use light to turn processes on or off. Eventually, researchers would like to figure out ways to control gene transcription using this technique. According to Tonge, scientists are “interested in using these processes that have naturally evolved to tailor them to our own purposes.”

Tonge’s other research focus involves understanding how drugs work. Most drugs fail when they reach clinical trials. “Our ability to predict how drugs will work in humans needs to be improved,” he said, adding that he focuses on something called the kinetics of drug target interactions to improve the process of drug discovery.

In kinetics, he explores how fast a drug binds to its target and how long it remains bound. Companies look to design drugs that remain bound to their desired target for longer, while separating from other areas more rapidly. This kind of kinetic selectivity ensures the effectiveness of the drug while limiting side effects.

By thinking about how long a drug binds to its target, researchers can “improve the prediction of drug activity in humans,” explained Tonge. “We need to consider both thermodynamics and kinetics in the prediction of drug activity.”

A study of kinetics can allow researchers to consider how drugs work. Understanding what causes them to break off from their intended target can help scientists make them more efficient, reducing their failure rate.

Borrowing from sports, Tonge suggested that kinetics measures how quickly an outfielder catches a ball and throws it back to the infield, while thermodynamics indicates whether the outfielder will be able to make a catch. He believes the most interesting work in terms of kinetics should occur in a partnership between academia and industry.

Tonge is the newly appointed director of the Center for Advanced Study of Drug Action at Stony Brook, where he plans to develop a fundamental understanding of how drugs work and the role kinetics play in drug action.

Joanna Fowler, a senior chemist emeritus at Brookhaven National Laboratory, worked with Tonge for several years starting in 2005. She said Tonge developed ways to label tuberculosis and other molecularly targeted molecules he had developed in his lab. They did this to image and follow it in the body using the imaging tools BNL had at the time.

In an email, she described Tonge as a “scholar” and a “deep thinker,” who investigates mechanisms that govern the interactions between chemical compounds including drugs and living systems, adding, “He uses his knowledge to address problems that affect human beings.”

Finally, Tonge is also pursuing research on positron emission tomography. He would like to synthesize new radio tracers and use PET to see where they go and learn more about how drugs work. He would also like to enhance ways to locate bacteria in humans.

The professor is trying to detect infections in places where it is difficult to diagnose because of the challenge in getting clinical samples. Samples from throat cultures or mucus are relatively easy to obtain — the short-term agony from a swab in the back of the throat notwithstanding.

“It is more difficult to get samples from locations such as prosthetic joints,” which makes it more challenging to detect and diagnose, he said.

If an infection isn’t treated properly, doctors might have to remove the prosthesis. Similarly, bone infections are difficult to detect and, if left unchecked, can lead to amputations.

A resident of Setauket, Tonge lives with his wife, Nicole Sampson, who is a professor in the chemistry department at SBU and is the interim dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, and their two children, Sebastian, 18, and Oliver, 14.

Tonge, who was raised in the United Kingdom, said he enjoys running on Long Island.

Tonge and Sampson are co-directors of a graduate student training program in which they train students to improve their ability to communicate their science. One of the activities they undertook was to visit a high school and have grad students present their research to high school students.

As for his work, Tonge said he is “genuinely curious about the chemistry that occurs in biological systems.”

Pencils, notebooks, batteries, calculators, binders, blah, blah, blah. The back-to-school shopping list, after more than a dozen years, becomes tedious. Or, maybe, it’s just that teenagers turn shopping for anything into a toxic brew of frustration, impatience, and we-know-better-but-we-still-want-you-to-get-involved-too experiences.

This year, in addition to all those standard school supplies, I’d like to shop for a collection of unconventional stickers or messages to put on the breakfast table — assuming the kids have breakfast — or in the bathroom, that they can read each day. How about:

“No, she doesn’t hate you.” Your teacher may have had a bad day and she may have a difference of opinion with you, but the chance that she hates you isn’t all that high.

“There is no such thing as ‘fake homework.’” It’d be nice not to have to do some subjects, but falling behind creates more work tomorrow, when you’ll be even more exhausted.

“Turn off your phone.” Yes, you might need the phone for homework, but you spend way too much time pretending to do homework on it while you’re killing virtual people or sending pictures of yourself to the world.

“Take a shower.” You smell, you’ll get away from your homework or job for a few minutes and you’ll make everyone else’s lives better after you no longer smell like a locker room.

“Smile, even if you don’t feel like it.” It’s amazing how much better you and everyone else will feel if and when you stop scowling.

“Don’t write in all CAPS!” It’s annoying and it makes you look like you want to shout.

“Yes, I’m sure he’s your brother.” We brought both of you home from the hospital and we intend to keep both of you.

“Neatness counts.” This is true at home and at school.

“Don’t waste too much time today.” Yeah, we all know that we won’t be efficient all the time. How about if we strive for less inefficiency today?

“Say something nice.” That is, to someone other than your best friend(s).

“Assume Santa Claus is watching you today.” Kids get presents regardless of whether they’ve been naughty or nice, which leads them to believe the song about Santa watching all the time is wrong. They may, however, suspect that he could focus on a few times or days. Today could be one of those days

“No, everyone is not an idiot.” Not even you.

“Laugh with someone more than at someone.”

“Clean up this crap.” You made a mess and you can clean it up, even if it’s more fun to watch a parent do it.

“Even if no one else knows, you’ll know.” Isn’t that enough?

“Everything might not matter, but something should.”

“Close the door and scream.” Shouting can release tension.

“Make more mistakes today.” Your errors present opportunities to learn.

“If you feel like you’re falling asleep when you shouldn’t, ask a question.” And no, it shouldn’t be, “Will this be on the test?”

“Your ideas are fine. Your breath could use improvement.”

“Yes, we have to have winter again.”

“Are you sure you want to cross that line again today?”

“Do you really believe your own argument?”

“Are you sharing more with strangers than family?”

“Try to say ‘please’ out loud as often as you send an instant message.”

“Yes, that clock is accurate, so move along.”

“Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true or false. It could be both.”

“Help someone other than yourself today.”

Maybe a few of these stickers will make a teenager’s world and those of us who live around it into something that smells better, is neater and contains a few extra social graces. Then again, perhaps aiming lower, a sticker could suggest:

“Try not to roll your eyes when you read this.”

Participants in MLB’s Home Run Derby listen to the national anthem. Photo by Daniel Dunaief

It’s all about family.

Sure, there was plenty of high-powered baseball last week when I had the privilege of attending my first Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., July 17, with my son, but, ultimately, it’s clear between and outside the lines that the players fill their energy reserves with the support of their families.

Los Angeles Dodger Manny Machado signs autographs. Photo by Daniel Dunaief

After our first trip to FanFest — a gathering of dedicated baseball aficionados — we wandered over to a nearby burger joint where a man named Frank suggested we go to the Marriott across the street because that was where all the players were staying. We wolfed down the last of our burgers and found a lobby filled with kids of all ages — including adults who enjoy sharing the excitement of the game with their own children — waiting for a glimpse of their favorite stars.

Within a half-hour of our arrival, superstars wandered in the front lobby, where they had about a 50-foot walk between a huge revolving door and a private, security-protected hallway opposite a sign forbidding pictures or autographs.

Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, whose muscular 6-foot, 5-inch frame made him appear to be the picture of a professional athlete, carried his young daughter in one arm and luggage in another, making it impossible for autograph seekers to ask him to sign their baseballs, programs or notebooks.

Other athletes followed the same pattern, carrying their young children or holding their hands, making it impossible for fans to demand a signature or even to interrupt their family moments.

On the other side of the spotlight, many of the eager fans weren’t too far from their parents, who urged them on and wished them well.

“Who’d you get?” one fan asked her son as he raced back to her, holding a ball carefully by the seams to avoid smudging the valuable ink. “Manny Machado!” he beamed, referring to the former Orioles superstar who the Los Angeles Dodgers would soon trade five players to acquire a day later.

“Good for you,” she clapped and cheered, pleased with her son’s success.

Cameras follow Yankee star Aaron Judge’s every move. Photo by Daniel Dunaief

On another trip to FanFest, I watched parents clad entirely in the ubiquitous red uniform of the Washington Nationals. A father with an open jersey flapping at his sides led his two small children, whose jerseys were buttoned up to their clavicles, across the enormous space toward the Major League Baseball store.

At the Home Run Derby July 16, the event that precedes the game in which a few sluggers essentially see how far they can hit baseballs, Washington fan favorite Bryce Harper didn’t disappoint the rabid Nationals fans, beating a determined and electrifying Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs. After his victory, Harper thanked the fans and his pitcher who, as it turned out, was his father Ron.

At the game itself, we were fortunate to sit fairly near the families of the American League all-stars. Patty and Wayne Judge, parents of burgeoning Yankee-great Aaron Judge, watched their 26-year-old son’s every move, filming him during his introduction and cheering as he circled the bases after his home run against starting pitcher Max Scherzer of the Nationals. Many in the Judge entourage, like those from other families, proudly wore jerseys with the names and number of their all-star on their backs.

Rays’ pitcher Blake Snell’s family filled up almost an entire row of seats, with his name and his number “4” draped across their backs.

When Detroit Tigers pitcher Joe Jiménez entered the game from the bullpen, his family stood proudly, with each of them filming the jog from the left field fence.

Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor electrified his family with a hit that almost made it out of the stadium on a record-setting night for home runs. As he jogged back to the dugout to get his glove, his family stood and applauded his effort, as his broad, patented smile crossed his face.

Yankee pitchers Aroldis Chapman and Luis Severino play catch. Photo by Daniel Dunaief

In the top of the eighth, Lindor’s replacement at shortstop, the Mariners’ Jean Segura crushed a three-run homer, triggering a big celebration from his extended family, who high-fived each other and who received congratulations from the nearby Lindor family.

Segura was an unexpected hero, who was the last player named to join the American League team, beating out Yankee Giancarlo Stanton, among others.

Yes, we witnessed all-stars with the ability to hit balls over 400 feet. Ultimately, though, we had the chance to see families share a weekend that mirrored similar scenes around the world, albeit on a smaller scale. Watching all these families come together to celebrate their baseball achievements made me feel like I was at a high-profile Little League game. Parents, siblings and friends stand on the sidelines, supporting their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters as they revel in the opportunity of the next at-bat.

The result? The American League triumphed over the National League, 8-6, in the 10th inning of an unforgettable all-star game.

Kenneth Shroyer and Luisa Escobar-Hoyos are the recent recipients of a two-year research grant from PanCAN. Photo by Cindy Leiton

By Daniel Dunaief

Stony Brook University has collected its first PanCAN award. Pathology Chair Kenneth Shroyer and Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the Pathology Translational Research Lab Luisa Escobar-Hoyos have earned a two-year $500,000 research grant from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

The tandem has worked together for seven years on the protein keratin 17, or k17, which started out as an unlikely participant in pancreatic cancer and as a molecule cancer uses to evade chemotherapy.

Shroyer and Escobar-Hoyos were “thrilled to get the award,” said Shroyer in a recent email. “While we thought our proposal was very strong, we knew that this was a highly competitive process.”

Indeed, the funding level for the PanCAN grants program was between 10 and 15 percent, according to PanCAN.

The grants review committee sought to identify projects that “would constitute novel targets for treating pancreatic cancer,” said Maya Bader, the associate director of scientific grants at PanCAN. 

“Given that k17 represents a potential new target, the committee felt the project was a good fit with exciting potential to meet this goal. We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Shroyer to the PanCAN grantee research community and look forward to following both his and Dr. Escobar-Hoyos’ contributions to the field,” she said.

Escobar-Hoyos explained that she and Shroyer hope “this work will shed scientific insight into potential novel ways to treat the most aggressive form of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma,” which is the most common type of pancreatic cancer.

Although they are not sure if their approaches will be successful, she believes they will provide information that researchers can use to “further understand this aggressive disease.”

Thus far, Shroyer and Escobar-Hoyos have focused on the role of k17 in pulling the tumor suppressor protein p27 out of the nucleus into the cytoplasm, where it is degraded. More recently, however, they have explored how the k17 the tumor produces reprograms the cancer metabolome.

They have data that suggests that k17 impacts several dozen proteins, Escobar-Hoyos suggested. If the tumors of patients express k17, around half the protein content will go to the nucleus of the cell. 

In addition to understanding what k17 does when it enters the nucleus, Escobar-Hoyos and Shroyer are testing how they might stop k17 from entering the nucleus at all. Such an approach may prevent pancreatic cancer from growing.

Shroyer and Escobar-Hoyos are working with a graduate student in the lab, Chun-Hao Pan, who is testing molecular pathways that might make pancreatic cancer more resistant to chemotherapy.

Dr. Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center, was pleased that his fellow Stony Brook scientists earned the PanCAN distinction.

“It is an important award and speaks to our growing significant efforts in research in pancreatic cancer,” he said, suggesting that the research could have important benefits for patients battling with pancreatic cancer.

“This defines at the very least a novel and important biomarker for pancreatic cancer that can also extend into novel therapeutic approaches,” Hannun said. This type of research could enhance the diagnostic process, allowing doctors to subtype pancreatic cancers and, if the pathways become clearer, enhance the effect of chemotherapy.

The funds from the PanCAN award will support experiments in cell culture and in animal models of pancreatic cancer, Shroyer explained.

Shroyer has teamed up with numerous researchers at Stony Brook and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on this work.

As proof of principle for one aspect of the proposal, he accessed chemosensitivity data from pancreatic cancer organoids. Hervé Tiriac, a research investigator who works in David Tuveson’s lab at CSHL, generated these organoids from SBU pancreatic cancer specimens.

In addition to their work with organoids at CSHL, Shroyer and Escober-Hoyos benefited from their collaboration with SBU’s Ellen Li, a professor of medicine, who ensured patient consent and specimen collection.

Going forward at Stony Brook University, the key collaborator for this project will be Richard Moffitt, an assistant professor in the departments of Biomedical Informatics and Pathology.

Shroyer described Moffitt as an “internationally recognized leader in the field of pancreatic cancer subtyping” who is working to understand better how k17 could serve as a prognostic biomarker.

At the same time, Wei Hou from the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine will provide biostatistical support throughout the course of the project.

PanCAN, which has donated $48 million to support pancreatic cancer research, awarded nine grants this year in the United States, Canada and France, for a total contribution of $4.2 million. 

The other scientists include Andrew Aguirre from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Scott Lowe, who had previously worked at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and is now at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and George Miller at New York University School of Medicine.

Previous recipients of PanCAN awards have been able to leverage the funds to attract research dollars to their work.

Grantees who had received $28.2 million from 2003 to 2015 went on to receive $311 million in subsequent funding to support their pancreatic cancer research, according to PanCAN. That means that every dollar awarded by PanCAN converts to $11.01 to fund future research aimed at understanding, diagnosing and treating pancreatic cancer, according to Bader. Most of the subsequent funding comes from government sources.

PanCAN award recipients have published research that other scientists have cited more than 11,000 times in other papers published in biomedical journals. This means “other researchers are reading, learning from and building upon our grantees’ work,” Bader added.

If I could only talk, I could tell some exciting stories.

For starters, many people think of me as a nuisance. No, I’m not a politician, journalist or lawyer. And, no, I don’t write parking tickets or tell you why you should join my religion and how I’ll promise you bliss in this life or the next one.

I’m much closer to earth. In fact, you could say that I’m closer to earth than almost everyone.

You see, I’m a speed bump. Now, hold on, I’m not some metaphor, like the layers of an onion. Don’t you hate how onions have become the metaphor of choice for complicated stories?

I’m a mound-over-a-road speed bump, designed to force cars racing through school areas, regions filled with small children playing on and around streets, and people approaching dangerous curves to slow down.

Kids don’t start hating me, just as they don’t start hating most things. In fact, small children often enjoy the miniature carnival ride I provide when their parents roll over me during a stroll. Sometimes, parents and children make excited noises as they approach, with their voices rising and falling as they reach the top of my back and then come back down.

As children get older, they like to ride their bicycles, skateboards, hover boards and scooters over me, often at high speeds, as they hope to catch some air. I’m like a skateboarding park with training wheels for children who haven’t graduated to more advanced, and dangerous, versions of high-speed obstacle courses.

Bus drivers sometimes use me to distract a raucous collection of children who are eager to get home. In fact, one of my speed bump friends on Main Street in Setauket described how kids at the back of the bus bounced up and down on their seats, hoping to reach my friend at exactly the right time so that the force of the bump caused them to launch into the air.

But then, as they get older, some kids find me as frustrating as their parents do. They want to go faster, because they’re late to meet friends, need to get to a job interview, or can’t be bothered looking at signs on the side of the road that introduce me. They sometimes call me a speed bump, speed hump or even a speed cushion.

They reach me at speeds that are dangerous for a car’s alignment, axle or wheels. The ones that race too quickly over me often shout something unpleasant in my general direction, especially if they hear a crunch or a crack in the car below them.

But, you see, more often than not, that means I’ve accomplished my goal. If they remember to slow down next time, they will protect their cars and, more importantly, the people who live, walk, work and, best of all, play in the area.

They may not think of the younger versions of themselves, or about their own children, as they slow down, but I don’t care. I’m not there to protect their car or to help them get somewhere more rapidly.

If they choose another route — maybe one that involves a highway — I’ve also gotten them away from local roads. Speed bumps like me serve a purpose, whether or not people enjoy me and the stripes they sometimes put on me.

And, as you know, school will be starting in a few weeks. I know because I’ve seen some of the back-to-school signs that pass slowly over me on the way to the stores.

Maybe, some day, self-driving cars will automatically slow down through areas where people are out and about. Until that day comes, I’m here for you and your children.

They aren’t unicorns, tooth fairies or fantastic creatures from the C.S. Lewis “Narnia” series. And yet, for a Long Islander who spent considerable time standing knee deep in the waters around West Meadow Beach, listening to the aggressive screech of territorial red-winged blackbirds, the sight of a green ruby-throated hummingbird moving forward and backward in North Carolina brought its own kind of magic.

By the time I got out my cellphone and clicked open the camera app, the bird had disappeared.

While there are hummingbirds that periodically appear on Long Island, the sight of one in Charlotte so soon after our move here seemed like a charming welcome from the nonhuman quarters of Southeastern life.

Behind a Chili’s and Qdoba — yes, they are side by side in a strip mall here — we discovered a spectacular lake with a small walking path over the water near the shore. Looking down, we saw numerous fish hovering below and, to our delight, a collection of turtles, who all clearly have an appetite for the leftovers from the nearby restaurant.

We have also seen, and felt, considerably more bugs and mosquitoes, while we’ve heard cicadas, which, unlike the 17-year kind on Long Island, emerge here every year.

So, what about the two-legged creatures?

After the initial shock from the level of consideration other drivers displayed, it’s become clear that:

(a) The Northeast hasn’t cornered the market on aggressive and anxious drivers.

(b) You can take the New Yorker out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the New Yorker.

Until I get North Carolina license plates, I have been driving the speed limit on smaller, local roads. Other cars have tailgated me so closely that I can practically read their lips as they talk on the phone or sing songs.

I watched a woman in a Mustang convertible, with rap music shouting profanities, weave in and out of traffic as her long hair waved in the breeze behind her. From a distance, the music and expletives were one and the same.

We have also seen an extensive collection of tattoos. A young FedEx driver climbed out of her truck and rang the bell to deliver a package. Her arms were so covered in colors and designs that it was difficult to discern a theme or pattern.

I walked into a supermarket behind a young couple pushing a baby stroller. The father had tattoos along the back of his muscular calves, while body ink adorned the well-defined shoulders and arms of his wife. I wondered if and when their young child might get her first tattoo.

When they find out we’re from the Northeast, people in North Carolina frequently become self-deprecating about their inability to handle cold weather. They laugh that flurries, or even a forecast for snow, shuts down the entire city of Charlotte. They assure us that no matter how much we shoveled elsewhere, we won’t have to lift and dump snow by the side of the road.

They ask how we’re handling the heat, which is often in the mid-90s, and the humidity, which is fairly high as well. While the three H’s — hazy, hot and humid — are my least favorite combination, I have certainly experienced many warm summers on Long Island, where shade or a trip into the ocean or a pool provide small comfort in the face of oppressive warmth.

With birds and insects of all sizes flying around, and drivers weaving in and out of traffic, North Carolina has displayed an abundance of high-energy activity.

Stephanie Maiolino. Photo by Elizabeth Anne Ferrer

By Daniel Dunaief

This one’s a head scratcher, literally.

For years, people assumed early primates — small creatures that lived 55 million years ago — had nails. That, however, is not the complete story, as Stony Brook University Assistant Professor Stephanie Maiolino and a team of researchers discovered.

In addition to nails, which lay flat on our fingers and which make it easy to scratch an itch after a mosquito bite, earlier primates had something called grooming claws. These claws, which were on the toes next to their big toes, allowed them to remove external parasites like ticks and lice, which likely helped them survive against an onslaught of various critters eager to steal, or even infect, some of their blood.

Maiolino, who is in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at SBU, teamed up with lead author Douglas Boyer, an associate professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University; Johnathan Bloch, the Florida Museum of Natural History curator of vertebrate paleontology at University of Florida; Patricia Holroyd, a senior museum scientist at UC-Berkeley’s  Museum of Paleontology; and Paul Morse, from the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida at Gainesville to report their results recently in the Journal of Human Evolution.

“It was generally assumed that only a certain type of primate had grooming claws,” Maiolino said. “Finding these structures was quite surprising.”

Maiolino spent considerable time during her doctoral work, which she conducted at SBU prior to becoming an instructor at the university, analyzing the differences in the bones of species that have nails, claws and grooming claws. By understanding the anatomical features of the phalanges — or fingers and toes — leading up to the claws or nails, Maiolino was able to go back into the fossil record to explore the prevalence of these digit protrusions.

Oftentimes, she suggested, researchers collect a bone, or even a fragment of a bone, in which a nail or claw is almost never preserved in the fossil record. Maiolino used her analysis to extrapolate the parts that extend beyond the remaining fossils.

While nails sit on the end of fingers, grooming claws stick up, which puts them in an ideal position for combing through hair, which would allow the primates to remove pests that could compromise their health or threaten their survival.

“From a functional standpoint, it’s often overlooked how important the need to remove these parasites [is],” she said. When people see lemurs whose ears are completely covered in ticks or they hear about dogs that have so many ticks on them that the dog is at risk of dying, they recognize that “having an adaptation to help you remove them is actually surprisingly a big deal.”

Like any other adaptation, however, the development of these grooming digits comes with a cost. Instead of having that digit available for locomotion or grasping branches, it becomes more useful in removing unwanted insects. “There are significant pressures shaping the feet of these primates,” said Maiolino.

To provide some perspective on the importance of grooming claws, Maiolino highlighted how the primates from the fossil record were not much bigger than a mouse. Having less blood because they are smaller than current primates, and dealing with ticks that are closer to their size, suggests that the health consequences of an infestation are much greater.

As primates became more social — interacting with other members of their species and taking turns grooming each other — the pressure to have these grooming claws may have reduced.

Nonetheless, Maiolino said, a few primates that spend hours each day picking ticks off each other in a process called allogrooming still have these claws. “Some of the animals that do have [the claws] groom each other considerably,” she said, which suggests that there is still work to do to understand the evolution of these features.

When Maiolino and her collaborators first started exploring the claws versus nails discussion, they knew that researchers believed anthropoids didn’t have them.

“Now we know that anthropoids did,” she said. “We’re getting more of a sense of the distribution” of these claws.

From here, Maiolino would like to continue to explore the evolutionary trajectory from claw-bearing nonprimates to nail-bearing primates. There are a “lot of questions about why early primates ended up evolving nails in the first place,” she said.

William Jungers, a distinguished professor emeritus at Stony Brook University who was Maiolino’s doctoral thesis adviser, described her as “an outstanding and innovative young scientist with a very bright future as an educator and comparative anatomist.” He said Maiolino uses “cutting edge imaging methods to advance our understanding of primate origins and paleobiology, especially the evolution of unique aspects of primate hands and feet.”

Jungers explained that claws and nails are the “key features linked to both locomotion and social behavior.”

Maiolino, who currently lives in Port Jefferson, said when she visits zoos, she’s always on the lookout for the way primates and other mammals use their nails or claws. She also studies photographs and videos.

When she first started graduate school, Maiolino was much more interested in skulls than in nails. Once she linked nails and claws, however, to questions about primate origins, she became much more interested in them.

Outside of the lab, Maiolino said she enjoys watching horror movies. One of her favorites is the second “Aliens” film in the Signourney Weaver centered franchise. She is also a fountain pen enthusiast.

Back in high school in New Jersey, Maiolino  was especially interested in studying evolution. Embryology and embryological development appealed to her, as she was amazed by how growth in the womb affected what organisms became.

As for her work, a Holy Grail question for her would be to better understand why primates developed nails in the first place. She’s trying to understand the interplay between body size, behavior and other variables that affected these structures.

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