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Cancer Research

Kids get their heads shaved at the annual St. Baldrick's event at Centereach Fire Department March 16. Photo by Doug Dickerson

By Kyle Barr

On the night before St. Patrick’s Day, hair rained down onto the floor of Centereach Fire Department. People clapped and cheered as blonde, brown and even green-dyed hair fell from amused faces before being swept away during the annual St. Baldrick’s charity event to raise money for childhood cancer research March 16.

Area local Aimee Jackson watched her teenage son Zachary get shaved, the first head of the night to go bald. It was his fourth time participating, and every year the duo has tried to raise more and more money.

“The first time he did it he was little — 5 years old — we both did it,” she said. “He’s shaving in honor of his twin brother, Kendall, who passed away just before their fifth birthday.”

Zachary Jackson has his head shaved in honor of his twin brother, Kendall, who died of cancer at age 4. Photo by Kyle Barr

The Middle Country Youth Civic Association and Centereach Fire Department joined with local sponsors to host the fourth annual event. Before the buzzer even started sounding, the team of brave bald-headed
community members raised close to $30,000. By Monday, the event had raised over $47,000, close to twice the original $25,000 goal, according to event organizer Doug Dickson. The largest donor was 12-year-old Austin Vero, who raised over $15,000 alone.

“Thank God for our barbers — with all the hair on the ground, they bring their own guys, they’re sweeping all the time,” Dickson said, laughingly.

The night was full of Irish flavor with the inclusion of FDNY Emerald Society bagpipers and Irish step dancers from Mulvihill-Lynch Studio of Irish Dance in Lake Ronkonkoma. Attendees were decked in green from head to toe, including Rob “Squid” Wilson, who was one of many prospective head-shavers to dye their hair green.

Wilson has been hosting local St. Baldrick’s events for 16 years. This year, he dressed in a bright green shamrock coat and a green tiara.

“My team is the Squid and the Squires,” Wilson said. “Each team is a bunch of clowns like us who are doing it for the right reasons.”

He and his friend Tom Duffy have been involved and shaved their heads every year since their first rodeo.

“It’s important to show kids it’s not a big deal to get their heads shaved,” Duffy said. “My big thing is I feel if [scientists] can cure cancer with kids — they can cure cancer.”

Members of the Suffolk County Police
Department shave their heads at the event. Photo by Doug Dickerson

Several staff members at the fire department joined in the shaving spirit, including Assistant Chief Joseph Feola.

“It’s a huge event — one of the bigger events we have,” Feola said. “It’s great to see all this support from the community.”

Nine barbers and hairdressers volunteered their time to shave heads, including the owner of Rockabilly Barbers of Stony Brook’s Vinnie Ferrara. He and his crew of barbers have also been involved in the event for 16 years.

“The greatest thing about it is that we’ve been doing it for so long and seen so much money raised,” Ferrara said. “It just goes to a great cause.”

“The people are so into it,” owner of Centereach-based Blondie’s Creations Inc. Mary Beth Mastando said. She and her team have been shaving heads at the event for three years.

“The community gets together, and everybody helps,” Mastando said. “They’re excited to be shaving their head, and I’m the one doing it, so that’s pretty cool.”

The Centereach St. Baldrick’s organizers are accepting donations until next year’s event. To join in the cause, visit www.stbaldricks.org/events/mypage/10953/2018.

Joel Saltz. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

In the battle against cancer, doctors and scientists use targeted drugs to treat the disease. They also employ radiation, starve it of the nutrients it might need to grow, block key metabolic pathways in its development and encourage the immune system to attack these genetically misdirected cells that grow out of control. A developing field in this battle includes the use of computers, artificial intelligence and math.

Joel Saltz, the Cherith Chair of Biomedical Informatics at Stony Brook University, recently teamed up with researchers from Emory University and the University of Arkansas and won an $8 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to coordinate radiology and pathology information in the battle against cancer.

“By gathering more information, researchers can understand better what’s happening, what might happen and how best to treat cancer,” Saltz said. The grant will be divided equally among the three institutions over the course of five years. Saltz will be collaborating with Ashish Sharma at Emory and Fred Prior at the University of Arkansas.

Saltz has been working with Sharma for several years, when the two were at Ohio State and then moved together to Emory. This is Saltz’s first major grant with Prior, although the two have also known each other for years and have been working in the same NCI program.

Prior has considerable expertise in radiology, while Saltz is adding his pathology background to the mix. Radiology has used digital imaging for a long time and, until recently, pathology data was collected on glass slides. Saltz is helping bring digital pathology to this effort.

“We had been on panels for many years with NCI saying we need to do this sort of” collaboration, Saltz added, and now the trio is putting that idea to work.

Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Cancer Center at Stony Brook, sees the potential for this type of collaboration. “This is a very important effort that builds on several areas of outstanding strength” at the Cancer Center, the director explained in an email.

Exploring information from digitized radiology and pathology samples will “allow us to understand individual cancers at a much higher level. It should improve accuracy in diagnosis [and offer an] ability to provide better informed prognosis” and individual therapy, Hannun continued.

Researchers on the current grant, which is part of the Information Technology for Cancer Research, plan to expand resources for integrative imaging studies, build on the capacity to acquire high-quality data collections, dedicate resources to support reproducible research and increase community engagement.

Saltz will use the portion of the Stony Brook funds to develop new software integration tools and curation and work with researchers to analyze and understand their patient data. Over time, he will also hire additional staff to build out this expertise. He has collaborated with Kenneth Shroyer, chair of the Department of Pathology at Stony Brook, on pancreatic and ovarian cancer and on breast cancer with pathology professor Patricia Thompson, who is also director of basic science at the Cancer Center. Shroyer “plays an important role” in all his research, Saltz said.

“Digital pathology will supplement that art of surgical pathology with quantitative data, to improve diagnostic accuracy,” Shroyer wrote in an email, which will “inform decisions on how to optimize therapeutic intervention for the treatment of cancer and many other diseases.”

Shroyer interviewed Saltz before Stony Brook hired its first bioinformatics chair. “Based on his research focus, including his pioneering efforts in digital pathology, he clearly stood out as my top choice.”

Saltz and Shroyer have generated maps of patterns for immune cells in tumors. “We and others have shown that these are related to how patients respond to treatment,” Saltz said. He described his work with these scientists as “basic clinical cancer research,” in which he develops and enhances technology to understand various types of cancer.

This particular grant is “more about technology and curation,” Saltz said. “People are developing new algorithms, in artificial intelligence and machine learning.” By making this information available, scientists from around the world who have insights into the specific types of cancer can use it to predict responses to treatment and develop and refine the algorithms that underlie the computer analysis.

Using specific cancers from radiology and pathology studies is akin to sitting in a football stadium and examining a blade of grass from the bleachers, Saltz suggested, borrowing from a phrase he’d heard at a recent panel discussion with Liron Pantanowitz from the Department of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“What we do is we create catalogs of every blade of grass and every worm and weed,” Saltz added. “It’s a huge database problem” in which he is integrating software development.

Hannun, who has been working to help Stony Brook University earn a National Cancer Institute designation, suggested that this bioinformatics work is “a critical component of our plans” and represents an area of exceptional strength.”

Cancer bioinformatics is “one of the main pillars of our research program and it integrates well with our efforts in imaging, metabolomics, improved diagnostics and improved therapeutics,” Hannun explained.

As for his department, Saltz said Stony Brook will have its first biomedical informatics Ph.D. graduate at the end of 2017. Yanhui Liang joined Stony Brook when Assistant Professor Fusheng Wang came to Long Island from Emory. Xin Chen will graduate in May of 2018.

The doctoral program, which launched last year, has five current students and “we’re hoping to get a bigger class this year,” Saltz said. “Informatics involves making techniques for better health care,” Saltz said. People with medical degrees can do fellowship training in clinical informatics.

A resident of Manhasset, Saltz lives with his wife Mary, who is an assistant clinical professor of radiology at Stony Brook University. Over the course of the next five years, Saltz said he believes this grant will continue to allow him and his collaborators to develop tools that will help provide insights into cancer research and, down the road, into personalized cancer treatment.

Port Jefferson Village and John T. Mather Memorial Hospital squared off on the open seas for the eighth time Sept. 9 for the Village Cup Regatta, an annual event that features a parade, sailboat race, a reception and even remarks from actor Ralph Macchio. Representatives from both groups man vessels and race in the Long Island Sound near Port Jefferson Harbor for bragging rights and, more importantly, to raise money for cancer research. The Mather team won the 2017 incarnation of the race and proudly took the trophy back from Village Mayor Margot Garant, who had the cup since the village’s 2016 victory. In total, about $65,000 was raised for Mather’s Palliative Medicine Program and for the Lustgarten Foundation, which funds pancreatic cancer research. The event is hosted by the Port Jefferson Yacht Club.

Ute Moll in her lab at Stony Brook University. Photo by John Griffin

Some day, people may be able to breathe easier because of a cancer researcher.

No, Ute Moll doesn’t work on respiration; and, no, she doesn’t study the lungs. What Moll, research scientist Alice Nemajerova and several other collaborators did recently, however, was explain the role of an important gene, called p73, in the formation of multiciliated cells that remove pollutants like dust from the lungs.

Initially, scientists had studied a knockout mouse, which lacked the p73 gene, to see if the loss of this gene would cause mice to develop cancers, the way they did for p73’s well-studied cousin p53. Researchers were surprised that those mice without p73 didn’t get cancer, but found other problems in the development of their brains, which included abnormalities in the hippocampus.

While each of these mice had a respiratory problem, researchers originally suspected the breathing difficulties came from an immune response, said Moll, the vice chair for experimental pathology and professor of pathology at Stony Brook University.

A board-certified anatomical and clinical pathologist who does autopsies and trains residents at Stony Brook, Moll took a closer look and saw an important difference between these mice and the so-called wild type, which has an intact p73 gene.

Moll on a recent trip to Africa says hello to Sylvester the cheetah who is the animal ambassador in Zimbabwe. Photo from Moll
Moll on a recent trip to Africa says hello to Sylvester the cheetah who is the animal ambassador in Zimbabwe. Photo from Moll

“Microscopic examinations of many types clearly showed that the multiciliated cells in the airways were severely defective,” she explained. “Instead of a lawn of dense long broom-like motile cilia on their cell surface which created a strong directional fluid flow across the windpipe surface, the [knockout] cells had far fewer cilia, and the few cilia present were mostly short stumps that lost 100 percent of their clearance function.”

This finding, which was published in the journal Genes & Development, could have implications for lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which affects more than 330 million people around the world and is the third leading cause of death.

The discovery provides “the long-awaited explanation for the diverse phenotypes of the p73 knockout mice,” wrote Elsa Flores, a professor of molecular oncology at the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center, in a commentary of the work.

In an email, Flores said Moll is a “wonderful collaborator and colleague” whose “meticulous” work is “held in high regard.”

Carol Prives, Da Costa professor in biological sciences at Columbia University, suggested this was a “very significant finding.”

Moll and her scientific team went beyond showing that the loss of the p73 gene caused the defective or missing cilia. They took stem cells from the trachea, which can grow on a culture dish into a range of other cells. With the proper nutrients and signals, these stem cells can grow back into a fully differentiated respiratory epithelium.

The organotypic culture had the same defects as the knockout mice. The scientists then used a lentivirus to insert a copy of the functioning p73 gene. The cells in the culture developed a complete set of long, motile cilia.

“It’s a complete rescue experiment,” Moll said. “This closes the circle of proof that” p73 is responsible for the development of these structures that clean the lungs.

In addition to the lungs, mammals also develop these cilia in two other areas, in the brain and in the fallopian tubes.

There could be a range of p73 deficiencies and some of these could be indicative of vulnerability or susceptibility to lung-related problems that are connected to incomplete cilia. This could be particularly valuable to know in more polluted environments, where the concentration of dust or pollutants is high.

Moll plans to “find tissue banks from COPD patients” in which she might identify candidate alleles, or genes, that have a partial loss of function that would contribute to the reduction in the cilia cells.

While Moll will continue to work on respiration and p73 in mice, she described her broader research goals as “gene-centric,” in which she studies the entire p53 family, which includes p53, p63 and p73.

Colleagues suggested that she has made important and unexpected discoveries with p53.

“She was among the first to show that in some pathological states, p53 is sequestered in the cytoplasm rather than in the nucleus,” Prives, who has known Moll for 25 years, explained in an email. “This led to her original and very unexpected discovery that p53 associates with mitochondria and plays a direct role in mitochondrial cell death. She was very courageous in that regard since the common view was that p53 works only in the nucleus.”

Moll was raised in Germany and earned her undergraduate and medical degrees in Ulm, the same town where Albert Einstein grew up. She lives in Setauket with her husband, Martin Rocek, a professor of theoretical physics at SBU. The couple has two sons, 26-year-old Thomas, who is involved in reforestation in Peru, and 29-year-old Julian, a documentary filmmaker focusing on environmental themes.

Moll is also focused on the environment.“If humankind doesn’t wake up soon, we are going to saw off the branch we’re sitting on,” she warns. One of Moll’s pet peeves is car idling. She walks up to the windows of people sitting in idling cars and asks if they could turn off the engine.

As for her work with p73, she feels as if she is “just at the beginning. This is a rich field.”

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Port Jefferson Yacht Club hosted its sixth annual Village Cup Regatta on Saturday, raising funds for pancreatic cancer research through the Lustgarten Foundation and for John T. Mather Memorial Hospital’s palliative medicine program.

The regatta pits the hospital and Port Jefferson Village against one another in a friendly competition for the Village Cup, a trophy which the hospital has now won two years in a row following a village reign of three years.

Participants raised about $64,000 for the cause through this year’s race, according to yacht club member Chuck Chiaramonte. The sum will be split between the Lustgarten Foundation and the palliative care program, which is focused on improving patients’ quality of life.

Chiaramonte said over the six years of the regatta, the event has raised more than $300,000.

The yacht club — formerly known as the Setauket Yacht Club — supplied the boats and captains for the event, which included a parade of boats, games and face painting for children at the harborfront park, and a trophy presentation at the adjacent Village Center.

Chiaramonte said the club looks forward to the event every year.

“It was really meant to just be a joyous occasion and share the love of the water and boating with our neighbors,” he said.

Annual St. Baldrick’s event brings in five figures after students shave heads to benefit good cause

Commack High School students and administrators take turns trimming their hair or shaving it off completely to benefit cancer research. Photo by Jenni Culkin

By Jenni Culkin

A line of students from Commack High School trailed from the school’s gymnasium doors to the next hallway.
The students eagerly waited to cut their hair for a worthy cause while the room buzzed with music, pizza, smoothies, an auction and the countless surprised faces of the brave people who lost inches of hair to raise money and awareness for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

“Hey, free haircut!” one student joked.

According to St. Baldrick’s official website, the event, which took place on March 6, raised $75,304.50 by the end. During the event, students played all kinds of volunteering roles to join the fight against cancer.

“It’s a great cause,” said David Malinovsky, an 11th-grade Commack High School student who had his head shaved. “It’s one of the most special things that we can do besides giving money.”

Even some of the female students hopped into the chairs to get their hair cut significantly shorter. Some female students even decided to have their entire head shaved for the cause.

“My uncle recently died of cancer,” said Carrie Fishbane, a 12th-grade student who had her entire head shaved. “I’m doing this in memory of him.”

Others decided not to lose their precious locks but to still help out in other ways.

“I think it’d be fair for a change if everyone else had no hair,” says Kyle Critelli, a 10th-grade student.

Critelli volunteered to sweep hair from the gymnasium floor. Other students got involved by selling food, drinks and merchandise that would all benefit the students.

Even nonstudents from the community got involved in the effort. Tara Forrest, a professional hairdresser with 17 years of experience, has been volunteering to cut hair for St. Baldrick events for three years.

“My whole family does it,” Forrest said with excitement,

Forrest said she was first inspired to donate her time and effort after one of her young son’s classmates was diagnosed with kidney cancer. She told her son Michael that his classmate’s remission is credited to “people like us that raise money.”

With that inspiration, Michael, who is now in second grade, has helped to raise roughly $10,000 through St. Baldrick’s within three years.

But the Forrest family was not the only one to let a personal situation inspire them to participate in charity work.

Lee Tunick, a math teacher from Commack High School, became the advisor for Yodel Kadodel, an extracurricular club at the school that raises awareness and money for cancer research with various activities throughout the year. The club has been running a St. Baldrick event for the past six years. Since then, roughly $450,000 has been raised.

“I have a friend whose daughter is sick,” said Tunick. “You feel so helpless from one parent to another. You want to do something to help if you can.”

Two girls prepare to have their locks chopped off at a St. Baldrick’s event last year. File photo

By Jenni Culkin

The St. Baldrick’s Foundation’s yearly fundraising effort to get local residents engaged in the fight against childhood cancers kicks off this month.

Participants volunteer to shave their heads and in the process raise money for cancer research.
Find an event in your community below, or visit www.stbaldricks.org/events for more information.

Miller Place
March 14
Napper Tandy’s Irish Pub
275 Route 25A

Port Jefferson
March 22, 2-7 p.m.
Hurricane Grill & Wings
1037 Route 112

March 28, 6-9:30 p.m.
Schafer’s
111 West Broadway

Stony Brook
March 29
Three Village Heroes at the Bench
1095 Route 25A

Lake Grove
March 15, 12-6 p.m.
Miller’s Ale House
4000 Middle Country Road

Centereach
March 6, 7 p.m.
Centereach Civic Association
Centereach Fire Department
9 South Washington Avenue

Kings Park
March 22
The Park Lounge
605 East Main Street

Commack
March 6
Commack School District
1 Scholar Lane

Huntington
March 18
Walt Whitman High School
301 West Hills Road

Northport
March 15, 5-8 p.m.
Laurel Avenue School
158 Laurel Avenue

March 14, 12-7 p.m.
Napper Tandy’s Irish Pub
229 Laurel Avenue

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