Stony Brook University

Delaney Unger and her parents, Melissa and Noah, look on at a Sept. 10 press conference as SBU doctors explain the procedure Delaney underwent after doctors diagnosed her with osteosarcoma. Photo by Rita J. Egan

A young dancer has come through a cancer battle with the poise and grace of a prima ballerina.

More than a year ago, 12-year-old Delaney Unger, of Selden, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer, in her left distal femur. Now cancer free, she reunited with the Stony Brook University Hospital doctors who provided her a way to dance with her St. James studio again at a Sept. 10 press conference.

Delaney Unger demonstrates how to take off the prosthetic she received after having her knee amputated. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Dr. Fazel Khan, an orthopedic oncologist surgeon, said doctors diagnosed Delaney with cancer above her left knee joint in December 2016. While given a few treatment options, including knee replacement, she and her family decided in order to have an active life she would undergo rotationplasty surgery, also known as the Van Ness procedure, which involves partial amputation followed by use of a prosthesis.

Khan said the operation involved amputating Delaney’s diseased knee, then doctors rotated her ankle 180 degrees and placed it in the position of the knee joint. It was attached to the remaining thigh to create a functional, natural joint. This results in a shorter leg with the foot and toes facing backward.

“The beauty of that solution is that you now control your ankle as if it’s your knee,” Khan said, adding it takes a lot of training and perseverance on the patient’s part to adjust.

Delaney’s mother, Melissa, said when her daughter began experiencing pain in her knee she and her husband, Noah, thought she had overworked it between dancing and gymnastics — maybe pulling a muscle. A pediatrician sent Delaney for an X-ray that showed a mass on her femur and an appointment was made with an oncologist.

“At that point, everything stopped,” Unger said. “Our world would forever be classified as before cancer and after cancer.”

During the press conference, Delaney demonstrated how easy it was to remove and put on her prosthesis that she has worn for the past year. It fits over her backward foot and extends up the thigh.

Khan said while knee replacement works well for people who are older, it may not be the best solution for younger people who are active.

“All my patients inspire me, but I’ve never seen somebody that is 11 years old, and now 12 years old, who has been so strong, so inspiring and so courageous in all of this.”

— Dr. Fazel Khan

“You can wear a prosthesis after [the amputation], and you can jump around or dance on that prosthesis as much as you like, and if it wears out, you can put a new prosthesis in there.” Khan said.

Plastic surgeon Dr. Jason Ganz, who worked with Delaney, said he has kept in touch with the family through emails and videos. He said it was wonderful to see how far she has come since the diagnosis, and she looked incredible.

Khan said he was inspired by Delaney who decided that despite cancer she would not give up on her dancing dreams.

“All my patients inspire me, but I’ve never seen somebody that is 11 years old, and now 12 years old, who has been so strong, so inspiring and so courageous in all of this,” the surgeon said.

Unger said Delaney used crutches for approximately a month after the operation and could walk unassisted after two months. In May 2018, she danced in St. James-based Chorus Line Dance Studio’s annual recital.

“Delaney has always had lots of confidence, drive and determination,” her mother said. “All of these traits have helped her to fight her battle and come through the other side.”

Delaney said she hopes sharing her story will help children going through the same thing. Using social media, she has been able to connect with others who had the same type of cancer and underwent the Van Ness procedure. She said even though having an ankle for a knee and wearing a prosthesis took time adjusting to, now it feels normal and sometimes she forgets she has one.

Delaney Unger dancing in her May 2017 recital. Photo from Stony Brook University

The soon-to-be 13-year-old said she continues to study ballet, tap, jazz lyrical, contemporary and hip-hop, and plans to try out for Selden Middle School’s kickline team. Delaney said sometimes the prosthesis affects her dancing as she can’t balance as well on her left leg; however, its more flexible now, so she choses to do her leg hold with her left side. She also said she can kick fine with both legs.

Delaney thanked the doctors who helped her and had kind words for the Stony Brook hospital staff.

“The child life specialists helped to put a smile on my face every day,” she said, adding Friday was her favorite day because therapy dogs would come to visit.

While dancing still takes up a considerable part of her life, she has new dreams.

“[The doctors] have inspired me to want to become a pediatric oncologist,” Delaney said. “I want to help other children do their treatments, and I want to research causes and new treatments for cancer.”

Her mother said Delaney has already been an inspiration to many.

“People have said that her attitude and outlook on life, even now going through cancer, has helped them,” the mother said. “They’ll stop and think, ‘Say, wait a minute, Delaney is going through this right now, I can handle this problem today.”

This post was updated Sept. 13 to correct the date of Delaney’s performance.

Ute Moll. Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

In the battle against cancer, human bodies have built-in defenses. Cancers, however, can hijack those systems, turning them against us, not only allowing them to avoid these protective systems, but converting them into participants in a process that can often become fatal.

Such is the case for the p53 gene. One of the most closely studied genes among researchers and clinicians, this gene eliminates cells with damaged DNA, which could turn into cancer. Mutations in this genetic watchdog, however, can turn this genetic hero into a villainous cancer collaborator. Indeed, changes in the genetic code for p53 can allow it to produce a protein that protects cancer from degradation.

Ute Moll. Photo courtesy of SBU

Ute Moll, professor and the vice chair for research in the Department of Pathology at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine, has made important strides in studying the effect of mutations in this gene over the last five years, demonstrating how the altered gene and the protein it creates are an important ally for cancer.

Moll published her most recent finding in this arena in the journal Cancer Cell. The Stony Brook scientist, working with an international team of researchers that included collaborators from her satellite lab at the University of Göttingen, advanced the work on previous results.

This research, which is done on mice that develop tumors through a process that more closely resembles human cancer growth, is a “very good mimic in the molecular and clinical features of human colon cancer,” Moll said.

The main research was done on a faithful mouse model of human colorectal cancer that produces mutant p53, Moll explained. She then confirmed key findings in human colon cancer cells and in survival analysis of patients.

This model allowed Moll to “study tumors in their natural environment in the intact organism with its tumor surrounding connective tissue and immune system,” Ken Shroyer, the chairman of the Department of Pathology at SBU School of Medicine, explained in an email.

The tumors that develop in these mice are driven by mutant p53 and are dependent on it for their continued growth. “These tumors overexpress mutant p53 at high levels,” which makes them a “formidable drug target for their removal,” Moll said.

By deleting the mutant p53 gene, she was able to slow and even stop the progression of the cancer. “We can show that when we remove mutant p53 either genetically or pharmacologically, we are cutting down invasiveness.” Mice with deleted mutants had fewer and smaller tumors and showed over a 50 percent reduction in invasive tumor numbers, she explained.

Finding ways to mitigate the effect of mutant p53 is important for a wide range of cancers. The mutated version Moll studied is the single most common p53 mutation in human cancer, which has a mutation that switches an amino acid for an incorrect one. This amino acid change destroys the normal function of the p53 gene.

The mutation she studies represents about 4.5 percent of all cancers. That amounts to 66,000 cancer patients in the United States each year.

More broadly, mutations in p53 in general, including those Moll didn’t study, are involved in half of all human cancers, Shroyer explained, which makes it the “single most common cancer mutation.”

Yusuf Hannun, director of the Stony Brook University Cancer Center, suggested that the work Moll did could have important clinical implications.“The deciphering of this mechanism clearly indicates new cancer therapy possibilities,” Hannun wrote in an email. The models she worked with are “quite promising.”

In addition to finding ways to stop the progression of cancer in mice with this damaged gene, Moll and her colleagues also used an Hsp90 inhibitor, which blocks a protein that protects the mutant protein from being degraded.

Inhibiting this protein has other positive effects, as the inhibitor eliminates other co-mutant proteins that could also drive tumors. “We are hitting multiple birds with one stone,” Moll said.

Hsp90 inhibitors are a “complicated story” in part because they have strong side effects in the liver and the retina. Researchers are working on the next generation of inhibitors.

A class of anti-cholesterol drugs called statins, which Moll called “one of the blockbuster drugs of medicine,” also has mutant p53 degrading effects, which work against some mutants, but not in others. The benefits are inconsistent and involve confounding variables, which makes interpreting their usefulness difficult, she added.

Moll said her recent article in Cancer Cell has triggered a number of email exchanges with a range of people, including with a patient whose cancer involved a different type of mutation. She has also had discussions with researchers on several other possible collaborations and has started one after she published her recent work.

The scientist is hopeful that her studies will continue to contribute to an understanding of the development and potential treatment of cancer.

Degrading mutant p53 has shown positive results for mice, which indicates “in principle” that such an approach could work down the road in humans, she suggested.

Stony Brook University’s Larry Swanson, Malcolm Bowman and Carl Safina have been chosen to be part of the new state Ocean Acidification Task Force. Photo from Stony Brook University

Stony Brook University will be well represented on the new state Ocean Acidification Task Force examining the effect of acidification on New York’s coastal waters. The legislation was drafted by Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chair of the Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation.

The university has three representatives on a 14-member team that will explore the impacts of acidification on the ecology, economy and recreational health of the coastal waters, while also looking to identify contributing factors and make recommendations to mitigate the effects of these factors.

“We have some of the best people in ocean acidification science who will be part of the process.”

— James Gennaro

Englebright said he was pleased to have the SBU representatives on the task force.

“We have these extraordinary scholars and researchers at the university who have a lot to contribute, and I hope that we’re able to listen closely to their advice regarding new policy and potentially new law to protect our coastal ecosystem and marine water.”

Larry Swanson, associate dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences will join Malcolm Bowman, distinguished service professor and Carl Safina, endowed research chair for nature and humanity, both also from SoMAS. The task force, which will have its first meeting some time in September at SBU, was signed into law in 2016 and is operating under the direction of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the New York State
Department of Environmental Conservation.

“We will make recommendations to the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Legislature and will share information about what our understanding of the state of knowledge of ocean acidification is, what are the impacts that we know about in New York state waters,” Swanson said, adding the group will suggest factors to monitor for consequences of acidification.

The composition of the group reflects its wide-ranging mandate, with members including Karen Rivara, owner of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company and former president of the Long Island Farm Bureau.

“We have a very significant shellfish industry that’s potentially in jeopardy. We need to understand what ocean acidification is doing to that industry.”

— Larry Swanson

Ocean acidification has been increasing at a rapid pace amid the increasing output of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Since the industrial revolution more than 200 years ago, ocean acidification has increased by about 30 percent, as absorbed carbon dioxide is converted into carbonic acid. The rate of change of ocean acidification is at a historic high and is 10 times faster than the last major acidification, 55 million years ago, according to a press release announcing the formation of the task force.

The task force, which will allow the public to provide input through a website it is developing and at its meetings, will focus on gathering existing data about the waters in and around Long Island, collecting additional information and offering the New York State Legislature suggestions for future policies.

The group will “figure out how to make science into policy-ready proposals,” said James Gennaro, chair of the task force and deputy commissioner at the DEC. Gennaro is pleased with the composition of the group.

“We have some of the best people in ocean acidification science who will be part of the process,” Gennaro said.

Swanson believes it’s important to consider understanding what is going on in the interior bays, including the Great South Bay and the Long Island Sound, as well as the New York Bight which is a curved area from Long Island to the north and east, and includes areas south and west to Cape May, New Jersey.

Some of the questions Swanson said he believes the group will explore include, “Can we measure changes based on what we know from historical information, how bad are those changes and what are the likely consequences?”

“This is very much a local water, coastal water, embayment improvement initiative.”

— James Gennaro

Improving the ecology of the ocean doesn’t have to be at the expense of the local economy, and vice versa, Swanson suggested.

Indeed, New York’s marine resources support nearly 350,000 jobs and generate billions of dollars through tourism, fishing and other business.

“We have a very significant shellfish industry that’s potentially in jeopardy,” Swanson said. “We need to understand what ocean acidification is doing to that industry. We can do things like control effluent going into the Great South Bay and Peconic Bay.”

Protecting and preserving the environment will “have a payoff” for the economy, Swanson added.

While the problem is global, monitoring agencies should oversee local impacts, Swanson and Gennaro agreed.

“This is very much a local water, coastal water, embayment improvement initiative,” Gennaro said, who added he is “eager” to get started.

The task force will meet no less than four times. The public will be able to follow the task force on the website that SBU and the DEC
are creating.

It is “imperative to do all we can to make sure we stay ahead of [and] act on” ocean acidification, Gennaro said.

Swanson suggested that local action can have consequences. People sometimes suggest that whatever policymakers do in New York will be a drop in the bucket compared to the overall problem of ocean acidification.

“If that’s the drop that causes the bucket to overflow, that’s an important drop,” Swanson said. “We can certainly make suggestions that we ought to do things on a national and global level.”

Port Jefferson Harbor. File photo by Alex Petroski

Port Jefferson Harbor is currently undergoing an alarming phenomenon that an expert called “uncharted territory” locally.

The harbor is currently experiencing a rust tide, or an algal bloom, caused by a single-celled phytoplankton. Rust tides don’t pose any harm to humans but can be lethal to marine life.

Christopher Gobler, endowed chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation at the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said rust tides are spurred by hot air, water temperatures and excessive nutrients in the water, especially nitrogen. The Gobler Laboratory at SBU, named for the chairman, is monitoring the situation, performing research into its specific causes, and is looking for solutions to reduce nitrogen loading and thus the intensity of events like these, according to Gobler. He said he has been studying the phenomenon on the East End of Long Island for about 12 years, but this is only the second time it has occurred in Port Jefferson Harbor.

“We never had these blooms even on the East End before 2004,” Gobler said. “Now, they occur pretty much every year since 2004 or so.”

Blooming rust tides typically start in late August and last into mid-September.  However, as water and global temperatures continue to rise, Gobler said there are a lot of unknowns. He said this is one of the hottest summers he has ever witnessed regarding the temperature of the Long Island Sound, adding that temperatures in the local body of water have increased at a rate significantly faster than global averages.

“The big issue is temperature, so these blooms tend to track very well with warmer temperatures,” Gobler said.

George Hoffman, a co-founder of Setauket Harbor Task Force, a nonprofit group which monitors and advocates for the health of the harbor, said his organization saw some early evidence of a rust tide in Little Bay while conducting biweekly water testing Aug. 24. Little Bay is located within Setauket Harbor, and within the larger Port Jefferson Harbor complex. Hoffman said the task force’s readings suggested salinity levels and water temperature were within the parameters needed for the growth of a rust tide.

Rust tide is caused by cochlodinium polykrikoides, according to a fact sheet compiled by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The single-cell phytoplankton may harm fish and shellfish because it produces a hydrogen peroxide-like compound that can damage their gill tissue. Fish can avoid these dangerous blooms by simply swimming away. Fish and shellfish harvested in areas experiencing rust tides are still safe for human consumption.

Gobler said the installation of septic systems capable of removing more nitrogen in homes, especially that fall within watershed areas, would go a long way toward reducing hazardous algal blooms. Suffolk County has taken steps in recent months to increase grant money available to homeowners interested in installing septic systems with up-to-date technology capable of reducing the amount of nitrogen discharged into local waters. In addition, members of the New York State-funded Center for Clean Water Technology at SBU unveiled their nitrogen-reducing biofilter April 26 at a Suffolk County-owned home in Shirley.

Stony Brook University President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. recently announced the success of The Campaign for Stony Brook fundraising efforts which raised more than $600 million for the school. File photo by Greg Catalano

Stony Brook University continues to make history.

After graduating the largest class in May since SBU opened, the university announced Aug. 21 it concluded the most successful fundraising effort in the State University of New York’s history.

The breakdown of donations to The Campaign for Stony Brook and what areas the funds will go to. Graphic from Stony Brook University

In the past seven years, The Campaign for Stony Brook raised $630.7 million, according to a press release from SBU. A total of 47,961 friends, alumni, foundations and corporations donated to help the university achieve its campaign goal of $600 million.

“Philanthropy, and the generosity of our donors, provides the margin of excellence for an R1, [Association of American Universities] public research university like Stony Brook, during a time when state support is waning, and more and more students are seeking access to excellence,” said university President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. in a statement. “The Campaign for Stony Brook dramatically underscores the importance and impact of philanthropy across our campus and I am extremely grateful to my fellow campaign leaders, and to those who contributed the extra resources we need to continue to educate and prepare the leaders of tomorrow.”

The money raised from the campaign has enabled the university to add 44 endowed chairs and professorships in various departments. Before the campaign, SBU only had 11 endowed faculty positions on campus, according to the press release. In addition to the endowed positions, new investments have been made in areas such as the Southampton graduate programs in creative writing and film, undergraduate research, the Alda Center for Communicating Science, the Gelfond Fund for Mercury Research, and the Dubin Family Athletic Performance Center.

The university will use $52.6 million of the funds raised for student financial aid, with $40.3 million for current use and $12.3 million for endowed undergraduate scholarships and graduate student fellowships. According to the press release, the contributions will also benefit the Medical and Research Translation and Stony Brook Children’s Hospital buildings scheduled to open this fall, the university pool will be refurbished, and plans are underway to modernize the North and Central Reading Rooms in the Melville Library and to expand the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics. To create and support academic centers, $209.1 million has been set aside. Among the centers that will benefit are the Bahl Center for Metabolomics and Imaging, the Institute for Advanced Computational Science, the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology, the Mattoo Center for India Studies, the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program, the Lourie Center for Pediatric MS and the Thomas Hartman Center for Parkinson’s Research.

“The Campaign for Stony Brook dramatically underscores the importance and impact of philanthropy across our campus.”

— Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr.

The campaign began in the fall of 2011 with a lead gift of $150 million from the Simons Foundation and former Math Department Chair Jim Simons and his wife Marilyn. After the Simons’ donation, employees of Renaissance Technologies in Setauket, a hedge fund firm Jim Simons founded, donated more than $127.4 million.

Richard Gelfond, chair of the Stony Brook Foundation board and CEO of IMAX Corporation, said in a statement that the Simons’ donation “created a groundswell of support.”

“Their confidence in Stony Brook and the investments they inspired have given the University the financial capacity to compete for the best researchers, clinicians, teachers and students and to aim for excellence in every way,” Gelfond said.

Funds raised have already helped to catalyze several innovative and impactful research and clinical programs, according to Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, Stony Brook University School of Medicine dean and senior vice president for Health Sciences.

“Campaign funding has also greatly enhanced our strength in imaging technology to diagnose and treat disease, in leveraging big data to help detect patterns of disease and response to treatment, and in new procedures to reduce the risk of stroke, colon cancer and heart disease,” Kaushansky said.

For more information on The Campaign for Stony Brook results, visit www.stonybrook.edu/campaign.

By Yusuf A. Hannun, M.D.

Dr. Yusuf Hannun

Recently the New York State Department of Health (DOH) reported elevated levels of leukemia, bladder cancer, thyroid cancer and lung cancer in three central Long Island communities — Farmingville, Selden and Centereach. 

As Suffolk County’s only academic-based cancer research facility, Stony Brook University Cancer Center has researchers working with DOH scientists to interpret the data and look at possible causes of these high incidence rates.

More information and analysis are needed

The state’s reports raise important questions about possible reasons, what the results mean and what can be done to change them. First, we need to determine which subtypes of the four cancers are responsible for these higher incidence rates. Each type of cancer can be divided into subtypes, based on certain characteristics of the cancer cells, and these subtypes may have distinct causes and risk factors. It’s important to know the subtype of a cancer to identify the possible causes.

Also, it is important to know whether mortality rates from these cancers are higher in the three Long Island communities than they are in the rest of the state. This information is critical because sometimes increases in incidence rates are due to improved diagnosis and detection. We must determine if the data in the DOH study truly are the results of higher incidences, which can be assessed by determining whether the higher incidence rates have translated into higher mortality rates. 

Findings for Farmingville, Centereach and Selden

Bladder cancer, lung cancer, thyroid cancer and leukemia were diagnosed at statistically significant elevated levels in Farmingville, Centereach and Selden, according to the DOH data. The cancer incidences were identified with information from the New York State Cancer Registry.

The registry collects reports on cancer diagnoses from health care providers, which include the sites of tumors, the stages when diagnosed, the cell types of the cancer, treatment information and demographic information. Every person diagnosed with cancer in New York state is reported to the registry. The incidences also were identified from statistical mapping of neighborhoods in the three communities. 

We learned that, from 2011 to 2015, the following number of cases occurred:

• 311 cases of lung cancer, 56 percent above statewide rate

• 112 cases of bladder cancer, 50 percent above statewide rate

• 98 cases of thyroid cancer, 43 percent above statewide rate

• 87 cases of leukemia, 64 percent above statewide rate

Cancer research

With all the resources of an academic medical center, the Stony Brook Cancer Center will move quickly to examine the findings from this study.

Transforming cancer care is the driving force behind the construction of our new cancer center, which will be located in the 240,000-square-foot, eight-story Medical Research and Translation (MART) building opening in November. It is where researchers will revolutionize breakthrough medical discoveries and create lifesaving treatments to deliver the future of cancer care today.

For more information on the DOH study, or the Stony Brook Cancer Center, call us at 631-638-1000 or visit www.cancer.stonybrookmedicine.edu.

Dr. Yusuf A. Hannun is the director of the Stony Brook University Cancer Center and vice dean for cancer medicine.

Dean Fotis Sotiropoulos, SBU president Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., state Sen. Ken LaValle and state Sen. John Flanagan in front of the current engineering building at the university. Photo from Stony Brook University

Two state senators are doing their part to engineer a better future for Stony Brook University and Long Island.

New York state Sens. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) joined SBU President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. Aug. 16 to announce the award of $25 million in state funding to the university for the initial phase of developing a new engineering building on campus — one that is estimated to cost $100 million in total. The 100,000 square-foot facility will include industrial-quality labs, active-learning classrooms and prototyping/manufacturing space.

“We have the opportunity to provide funding, sometimes discretionary, and this is a very strong investment.”

— John Flanagan

The official announcement was made at the university’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences building with representatives of local engineering companies in attendance, including VJ Technologies, Inc., Cameron Engineering & Associates, LLP, and H2M Architects & Engineers.

“We have the opportunity to provide funding, sometimes discretionary, and this is a very strong investment,” Flanagan said.

He thanked the owners and board members of the local engineering companies who traveled to Albany a few months ago to discuss the needs of engineering companies as well as the importance of recruiting talent and retaining students on Long Island.

LaValle, chairman of the Senate’s higher education committee, said he believed the new building will attract preeminent students to SBU, and thanked Flanagan for helping to secure the funds during a time when spare money isn’t plentiful

“I think it will go a long way in ensuring that we enhance where we are today in terms of providing students and faculty with an optimum state-of-the-art facility,” LaValle said.

Stanley recognized the senators as visionaries for acknowledging how critical the university is when it comes to building the technology that Long Island needs.

“I think it will go a long way in ensuring that we enhance where we are today in terms of providing students and faculty with an optimum state-of-the-art facility.”

— Ken LaValle

“The demand is tremendous,” Stanley said. “So, we really need to grow this school. We’re turning away qualified applicants from the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences because we don’t have enough space and because we need more faculty to teach.”

Fotis Sotiropoulos, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said the number of students applying to SBU has grown 60 percent since 2012, and the university has become more selective due to the lack of space. Currently, engineering students need to score at least 1400 on the SATs and to be in the 95th percentile in their class.

The dean said the research conducted at the school, in addition to impacting the economic development on Long Island, also affects the state and nation. The university focuses on engineering-driven medicine, artificial intelligence discoveries and energy systems for sustainability.

“This is where we are going to develop the medicine of the future,” Sotiropoulos said, adding SBU wants to be the hub for the state in artificial intelligence research.

Sotiropoulos said as the university develops the new facility the curriculum will be reconstructed to build learning around projects that start early in a student’s college years and continue all the way to incubating start-up companies. He said one of the goals is to keep students local after graduation.

“We want to grow the size of the engineering workforce for Long Island and the state, but we also want to educate the new kind of engineers,” Sotiropoulos said.

A Stony Brook University student has alleged that a professor sexually harassed her. File photo

A 2018 Stony Brook University graduate has filed a lawsuit against a Stony Brook history professor claiming he verbally and sexually harassed her while giving preferential treatment to the male students over female students.

Erin Mosier, 24, filed a $3 million suit under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in Manhattan federal court Aug. 9 saying that Stony Brook associate professor Larry Frohman sexually harassed her and degraded her for her looks and gender, sometimes together during his office hours and other times in front of her peers during class.

Mosier enrolled at Stony Brook for the Fall 2015 semester desiring to become a teacher. She entered in the social studies education program in spring 2016 where Frohman was the sole undergraduate adviser, according to the court filings.

The lawsuit claims that during Mosier’s first semester at Stony Brook she took a class with Frohman and within weeks he started to privately and publicly make demeaning comments at Mosier based on her looks. The comments continued on into 2017 during her time in the social studies program. At one point during office hours Frohman told Mosier she “talks too much,” and that “all women should use their mouth for men’s pleasure.”

The lawsuit also alleges on another occasion April 2017 that after applying oil to her hands to calm herself, Frohman stated to her in front of her class, “What would calm me down is taking you through a ride on the beaver car wash with me,” alluding to a sexual act with Mosier.

Mosier’s legal representative, Brian Heller, an attorney from Manhattan-based Schwartz Perry & Heller LLP that focuses on employment harassment and discrimination law, said with this case he hopes more people will speak out about sexual harassment in education.

“These are the kind of painful experience that can destroy a young person’s confidence and impact them for the rest of their lives,” Heller said. “I hope that by coming forward [Mosier] is able to reclaim part of her self-worth and her confidence.”

The suit further claims Frohman gave preferential treatment to male students, giving higher grades to male students on average rather than female students. The lawsuit also claims the professor partnered women together on projects and not men as a sign of Frohman’s belief in their capabilities.

Frohman has not responded to requests for comment by press time.

The lawsuit continues that Mosier brought her complaints to Paul Gootenberg, the history department chair of the social studies program, but that he first asked Mosier “What is your appearance and how are you acting to be treated like this?” and that he further commented about how she was not the first to bring complaints to him about Frohman.

Gootenberg declined to comment saying the university does not comment on pending personnel questions.

The suit claims Mosier’s Title IX complaints were mishandled by the university, that the investigation took six months instead of a promised 60 days to finish the investigation and that the office did not adequately give information as to the status of her complaint. On Oct. 30, 2017, Mosier received a letter from the Title IX office saying the case was “closed” and her complaints were “substantiated” but she did not receive any details on what actions the university would take against the professor.

Stony Brook spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow said that the university does not comment upon ongoing litigation.

“The university does have policies and procedures in place to fully investigate claims that are brought to our attention,” Sheprow said.

Heller said he is still waiting for Stony Brook to be formally served and initial hearings won’t begin until December.

Stony Brook University hosts opioid forum featuring health care community

Medical professionals participate in an opioid ethics symposium at Stony Brook University Aug. 3. Photo by Kyle Barr

The opioid crisis has reached its tendrils out to touch every person in the U.S., and the doctors who prescribe those opioids for pain relief see the ethical dilemma; whether they should treat their patients’ pain or not out of concerns of misuse.

At an opioid ethics symposium hosted at Stony Brook University Aug. 3, Dr. Kevin Zacharoff, an expert in pain medicine and a sitting member of the Anesthetic and Analgesic Drug Products Advisory Committee of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said a number of doctors no longer prescribe opioids for pain management because of how quickly the repercussions of misuse will come down on them. 

“All the regulatory agencies are coming down and tightening the screws of people in primary care, and people in primary care are saying ‘I wash my hands of it,’” Zacharoff said. “This is all falling on the shoulders of health care providers — when people dying from heroin and fentanyl has overtaken pain medication.”

Dr. Kevin Zacharoff delivered the keynote speech and discussed the effects of regulatory agencies on addiction. Photo by Kyle Barr

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that nationally 116 people a day died from opioid-related drug overdoses in 2016. A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released in 2016 said that the rate of death from drug overdoses has increased 137 percent and a 200 percent increase in the rate of opioid overdose deaths from 2000 to 2014. 

CDC data shows that regulations on prescription opioids restrained the rise of overdose deaths involving legal drugs, but since 2011 there has been a spike in the number of deaths caused by illicit drugs such as heroin and other painkillers including fentanyl. Zacharoff said he fears that these regulations on opioid prescribing pushes stable patients who could have been using opioids to treat long-term pain into using illicit drugs.

“Prescription drug monitoring programs have made a positive impact, but they have also had a negative impact on health care providers, because it takes a lot of time and energy,” Zacharoff said. “Should we sacrifice our care for patients for the sake of people using the substances illicitly?”

For the past several years federal agencies, as well as state governments, have started to restrict the number of opioids available for pharmacies as well as scrutinizing how doctors prescribe that medication. A large number of federal agencies, such as the CDC, the FDA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, just to name a few, are involved in opioid research and regulations. This is on top of state prescription drug monitoring programs, which make doctors fill out forms on patients, saying whether they informed them of the dangers of the drugs and whether they asked if there was a person in the house with a history of addiction.

In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the DEA would propose setting more limits on the numbers of opioids that a drug manufacturer could produce. Prescribing doctors said they have seen multiple problems with a shortage of opioids due to these limits on manufacturing and distribution.

“We are seeing an inability to get our prescriptions filled on Long Island,” said Laureen Diot, a nurse practitioner from East Patchogue.

Though that is not to say there have not been bad actors. In May, Merrick doctor Michael Belfiore was convicted of prescribing hundreds of opioids for profit and for causing the deaths of two men via overdoses. He wrote 5,000 prescriptions for 600,000 pain pills between January 2010 and March 2013, but Belfiore is asking a federal judge to dismiss the case, saying it was the pharmaceutical companies who promoted the drugs while downplaying their risks.

The issue, Zacharoff said, stems from doctors’ lack of education when it comes to pain medicine. A 2011 study in the National Academies Press showed that out of 117 U.S and Canadian medical schools only four U.S schools offer a required course on pain.

“That’s despite the fact that pain is the most common reason people seek medical attention,” Zacharoff said. “Doctors will often say to me, ‘I have to think about hypertension, diabetes, heart disease,’ but pain is more prevalent than diabetes, cancer and heart disease combined.” 

Suffolk County officials are hoping to see a decline in the number of opioid-related deaths this year. In a report presented at the May 31 Suffolk County Legislature’s health committee meeting Chief Medical Examiner Michael Caplan said that if numbers stay low, approximately 260 opioid-related deaths are expected this year — a near 100-person decrease compared to 2017. However, the county will not know the total opioid-related deaths until the year’s end.

There are options for nonopioid pain relief, such as rehabilitative and psychological therapies. Doctors at the symposium said they expect as opioid prescribing ebbs, then other practices or drugs will become more prevalent. While some medical professionals said medical marijuana might one day work as effective pain relief, it not being legal in New York and without the necessary number of tests, the drug is not viable at this moment.

“It’s too early to write the book on marijuana for chronic pain,” said Marco Palmieri, the director of the Center for Pain Management at Stony Brook University. “Some physicians have gotten around this by opting not to test for marijuana [when doing prescriptions]. Whether that’s right, I don’t know. There certainly needs to be more data available.”

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 College of Arts & Sciences, 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.”

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