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Cancer Research

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.”

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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