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Research

Heather Lynch visits Cape Lookout in Antarctica during recent trip that included an NBC TV crew that produced a feature for ‘Sunday Night with Megan Kelly.’ Photo by Jeff Topham

By Daniel Dunaief

Heather Lynch is thrilled that she’s in the first class of scientists chosen as a recipient of the National Geographic AI for Earth Innovation Grant.

An associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, Lynch uses computers to study satellite images to reveal details about populations of penguins.

In addition to determining how many penguins are in an area, Lynch also can use images of the stains penguin poop leaves on rocks to determine what the penguins eat. Krill, which feeds on the underside of ice, is reddish or pinkish, while fish leave a white stain.

Heather Lynch with a penguin. Photo from Heather Lynch

A total of 11 researchers won the grants, which are a combined award from Microsoft and the National Geographic Society and were announced in December. The winners were chosen from more than 200 qualified scientists.

“This is the first grant that National Geographic and Microsoft are doing,” Lynch said. “It’s super exciting to be in the inaugural group.”

To hear from Lynch’s colleagues, she is an extraordinary candidate for a host of awards, including recognition as one of the TBR News Media People of the Year for 2018.

In addition to landing a coveted grant for her innovative research using sophisticated computers and satellite images, Lynch earlier this year made a remarkable discovery using Landsat imagery about a population of Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands in the Antarctic that was largely unknown prior to her published paper.

This archipelago of nine islands, which were named because of the ice that is impenetrable in most years, was home to 1.5 million penguins, which she surveyed using a combination of photos, drone imagery and hand counting. That figure represents a substantial population of a charismatic animal whose numbers often are used as a way to determine the health of a delicate region managed by a collection of nations.

“She does such good work,” said Patricia Wright, a distinguished service professor at Stony Brook University and the founder and executive director of Centre ValBio, a research station in Madagascar. Her discovery of the additional Adélie penguins was “fantastic.”

Lynch received some pushback from people who thought the discovery of these penguins ran counter to the narrative about the need for conservation. Wright appreciates how Lynch shared the discovery with the public, reinforcing her scientific credibility.

“She’s an example of a scientist who doesn’t give in to political pressure,” Wright said. “It’s difficult sometimes to face up to people who have good intentions, but who don’t seem to want to accept the reality.”

While the discovery of the Adélie penguins was remarkable, it doesn’t necessarily run contrary to the notion about the delicate balance of the Antarctic ecosystem, and it also doesn’t indicate that the population is soaring in a way the flightless water fowl never will. Indeed, the 1.5 million penguins may have been higher in the 1990s, although she is working to pin down exactly how much larger they might have once been.

Heather Lynch at Spigot Peak in the Antarctic. Photo by Catherine Foley

Lynch has also won admiration and appreciation from Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who recently won his 14th term and has focused attention on environmental issues.

“Her ability to use statistics and mathematics to further conservation biology is pioneering work and worthy of recognition,” Englebright said.

The assemblyman believes scientists and policymakers are still in the early part of the process of understanding the complexity of the ecosystems in the Antarctic.

Finding the penguins on the Danger Islands doesn’t mean the “Antarctic is any less at risk. We still have to place that discovery into its proper context and [Lynch] is helping us do that,” Englebright said.

People who have ventured to the Antarctic with her admire Lynch’s focus, energy
and stamina.

Michelle LaRue, who is a lecturer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, suggested that Lynch was “the most hardworking scientist that I know.”

LaRue recalled a time when Lynch was ill, and she still got up and did her job every day.

“The work we were doing wasn’t easy,” LaRue said. “I know she didn’t feel well and she kept going. She has a lot of perseverance.”

LaRue appreciates how her fellow scientist sees the “forest for the trees,” using a combination of high technology and considerable on-site counting to understand what changes in the penguin population reveal about the region.

Michael Polito, an assistant professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University, has also worked with Lynch for years. He appreciates how she’s “not afraid of uncertainty. In science, it’s knowing how well you know something. She’s amazing at taking data and information, which from the natural world is messy, and analyzing it and helping people pull useful and meaningful knowledge from complex situations.”

Ron Naveen, who founded the nonprofit group Oceanites in 1987, has worked with Lynch for 11 years.

“I’m very much proud of her work ethic and the standard of excellence she brings to the job,” Naveen said.

Oceanites collaborates with Lynch and others, Naveen said, to understand how penguins have reacted to climate change in an area where temperatures have been increasing at a faster rate than they have for much of the rest of the world.

Naveen recalls how Lynch, whom he describes as “petite and energetic” lugged around “amazingly heavy equipment,” including a camera for a Google Earth project.

“Whether [Lynch] is hiking, using a satellite or a drone, or lugging equipment that’s heavier than she is, she gets the data,” Naveen said.

He recalled a lab meeting with Lynch, who was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland in the lab of William Fagan. Lynch circled the room as she wrote on the board, sharing statistical language to explain a point.

“I had no bloody idea what she was talking about,” Naveen said. “When she was done, she sat down with a smile, and I raised my hand and innocently asked, ‘Would you mind translating that into plain English?’ Without missing a beat, she did.”

By all accounts, she’s continuing to do that.

What do the signs tell us?

In Hawaii, numerous small earthquakes caused parts of Big Island to shake. Geologists, who monitor the islands regularly, warned of a pending volcanic eruption. They were right, clearing people away from lava flows.

How did they know?

It’s a combination of history and science. Researchers in the area point to specific signs that are reflections of patterns that have developed in past years. The small earthquakes, like the feel of the ground trembling as a herd of elephants is approaching in the Serengeti, suggest the movement of magma underneath the ground.

Higher volumes of lava flows could come later on, as in 1955 and 1960, say USGS scientists in the archipelago.

The science involves regular monitoring of events, looking for evidence of what’s going on below the surface. “Hopefully we’ll get smart enough that we can see [tremors] coming or at least be able to use that as a proxy for having people on the ground watching these things,” Tina Neal, scientist-in-charge at USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, explained to KHON2 News in Honolulu.

People look for signs in everything they do, hoping to learn from history and to use whatever evidence is
available to make predictions and react accordingly.

Your doctor does it during your annual physical, monitoring your blood chemistry, checking your heart and lungs, and asking basic questions about your lifestyle.

Scientists around Long Island are involved in a broad range of studies. Geneticists, for example, try to see what the sequence of base pairs might mean for you. Their information, like the data the geologists gather in
Hawaii, doesn’t indicate exactly what will happen and when, but it can suggest developments that might affect you.

Cancer researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Stony Brook University are using tools like the gene editing system called CRISPR to see how changing the genetic code affects the course of development or the pathway for a disease. Gene editing can help localize the regions responsible for the equivalent of destructive events in our own bodies, showing where they are and what sequences cause progression.

Scientists, often working six or seven days a week, push the frontiers of our ability to make sense of
whatever signs they collect. Once they gather that information, they can use it to help create more accurate diagnoses and to develop therapies that have individualized benefits.

Indeed, not all breast cancers are the same, which means that not all treatments will have the same effect. Some cancers will respond to one type of therapy, while others will barely react to the same treatment.

Fundamental, or basic, research is critical to the understanding of translational challenges like treating
Alzheimer’s patients or curing potentially deadly fungal infections.

Indeed, most scientists who “discover” a treatment will recognize the seminal studies that helped them finish a job started years — and in some cases decades — before they developed cures. Treatments often start long before the clinical stages, when scientists want to know how or why something happens. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake can lead to unexpected and important benefits.

Outside the realm of medicine, researchers on Long Island are working on areas like understanding the climate and weather, and the effect on energy production.

Numerous scientists at SBU and Brookhaven National Laboratory study the climate, hoping to understand how one of the most problematic parts of predicting the weather — clouds — affects what could happen tomorrow or in the next decade.

The research all these scientists do helps us live longer and better lives, offering us early warnings of
developing possibilities.

Scientists not only interpret what the signs tell us, but can also help us figure out the right signs to study.

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By Elof Carlson

Science explores the unknown. I love the history of science because it reveals how science has changed our way of seeing the universe. It rejects the supernatural as an explanation. This has led to the formation of the major fields of science — physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry and biology.

Combinations of these fields are used to explore other fields like oceanography, meteorology or paleontology. Those sciences require data gathering, associations, experimentation and the invention of instruments to obtain data not detectable with our own senses.

Telescopes, microscopes, centrifuges, cyclotrons, cameras, chromatography, space probes, computers, electronic sensors and hundreds of other devices are used in different fields of science to give us information about other planets, stars and galaxies. These tools allow it to smash atoms, sequence DNA or work out how an organism shifts from a fertilized egg to a crying newborn. 

There is another lesson I learned from studying the history of science. We don’t know as much as we think we do. Almost all of modern science from the origin of starlight to the cellular composition of our bodies was unknown before the existence of the right tools and level of understanding of how things worked.

A college science textbook is complete only for the generation of students reading it. It becomes outdated within five years and new texts are required. The new material comes from new tools introduced, new experiments revealing unexpected outcomes and chance findings from sifting through data.

In my own field I would identify as a major unknown the composition and functions of the cytoplasm of the cell. This is the material in which the cell nucleus and membrane-bound organelles are located (the mitochondria, Golgi, endoplasmic reticulum and lysosomes are examples). But the “glop” around them is a gel of sorts and has some cytoskeletal components. What is not known are the component molecules and the structural arrangement of the molecules in the cell cytoplasm that makes it unique to the species. 

You cannot put a fertilized mouse cell nucleus in an enucleated egg of a fish or toad or rabbit. That inability may be a consequence of the products of nuclear genes stored in the cytoplasm that are essential for turning genes on or off after fertilization. Lots of experiments will have to be done to see what’s going on.

That is the challenge of science.  Each new generation of students looks at things in fresh or original ways. The old way of describing and interpreting things gives way.  Sometimes it is rapid, such as the field of molecular biology after the discovery of nucleic acids as the hereditary material. 

Often it is slow.  The discovery of new organs or tissues in the human body is relatively slow.  About once every 20 years or so, I read an article that a new tendon or region of the brain, or some new function of a gland, has been discovered.

No new continents on Earth have been discovered since the polar regions were explored in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Our technology for photographing Earth makes such a finding virtually impossible. We can predict what we can infer from the known knowledge of our fields, but we cannot predict what is totally unknown to us.

Some seek refuge in such areas of the unknown because they hope to tuck their supernatural beliefs into reality, but it is not reality until that area is fleshed out with data, functions and a comprehension of how things work and can be tested for their predictions and claims.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

File photo

An animal rights group has a bone to pick with Stony Brook University.

The Beagle Freedom Project, a national laboratory animal advocacy group, has filed a petition in the state Supreme Court against Stony Brook University with hopes of compelling the school to provide documents relating to Quinn, a dog being housed at the university for animal testing and research. The group, alongside supporter Melissa Andrews, made a Freedom of Information Law request to Stony Brook for documents as part of their “identity campaign,” which allows individuals to virtually adopt dogs or cats being held or used in experiments.

The petition accused Stony Brook University of failing to provide a full response to the FOIL request, providing only five pages of heavily redacted documents. Among the five pages provided was a form appearing to indicate that Quinn and his littermates had been purchased from Covance Research Products, Inc., the group said.

Currently, most universities routinely euthanize all such “purpose-bred for research” animals, the group said. In a statement, a spokesman for the Beagle Freedom Project said the group hopes that the documents help to identify opportunities to provoke post-research adoptions of healthy laboratory dogs and cats.

The petition also challenged Stony Brook University’s claim that it has no further documentation relating to Quinn, pointing out that certain documents are required to be maintained by the Animal Welfare Act and that other publicly funded universities responding to similar requests had produced hundreds of pages of documents. In the petition, BFP and Andrews argued that Stony Brook University and the other respondents did not articulate a particularized or specific justification for denying access, as required, and that there is no such justification.

“Stony Brook is either lying about the records they are keeping or they are in violation of federal recordkeeping requirements,” said Jeremy Beckham, research specialist for the Beagle Freedom Project. “Either way this is troubling and the taxpaying public, forced to fund these experiments, have a right to hold this school to account.”

Lauren Sheprow, a spokesman for Stony Brook University, said the university was unable to comment at this time.

The petition asked the Supreme Court of the State of New York to compel Stony Brook University and the other respondents to provide complete, unaltered documentation concerning Quinn. The Manhattan-based law firm Olshan Frome Wolosky LLP is representing BFP and Andrews in connection with the petition, through its pro bono program.

Through the Identity Campaign, the Beagle Freedom Project has uncovered a troubling pattern of laboratories using animals redundantly or unnecessarily for research or experimentation, providing these animals with poor veterinary care, and other abuses, a spokesman for the group said.

Members of the Comsewogue High School girls varsity and junior varsity field hockey team dump water on themselves at the second annual ALS Ice Bucket Challenge on Wednesday Aug. 26. Photo by Giselle Barkley

As the president of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association, Beth Dimino is rarely hit in the face with whipped cream. But on Aug. 26, Dimino sat wearing a large black garbage bag as whipped cream from a pie toss dripped down her face and body — all in support of the second annual ALS Ice Bucket Challenge at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai.

Hundreds of people attended the event, which aimed to raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and money for research into the disease, through the Stony Brook-based organization Ride for Life. People who purchased a ticket could trade it for a chance to throw a whipped cream-filled plate at volunteers like Dimino.

Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) was one of many, including local school principals and teachers, to participate in the event’s dunk tank or pie-throwing games. For Bonner, supporting the cause is important, as her grandfather died from the rare disease around 35 years.

“It robs your body, not your mind,” Bonner said.

ALS affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing motor neurons to degenerate. People with the disease lose control over their muscles, leaving them unable to speak, eat, move or breathe on their own. The cause of the disease is not yet known.

Bonner jumped at the chance to participate in the event this week.

“Chris just makes you want to [be involved],” she said about Christopher Pendergast, who founded Ride For Life in 1997 and has lived with the disease for more than 20 years. “He just inspired so many people to participate and bring awareness.”

According to Ray Manzoni, a member of the Ride For Life Board of Directors, Pendergast wanted to make this year’s event at Heritage Park bigger and better than last year’s ice bucket challenge, which focused on the ice bucket challenge itself.

Last year’s event occurred during the height of a worldwide trend in which people dumped buckets of ice water over their heads, and challenged others to follow suit, in order to bring publicity to the disease. Lori Baldassare, president of the Mount Sinai Heritage Trust, Bonner and Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), all of whom attended this year’s event, were “instrumental in getting [the event] approved quickly” last year, according to Manzoni. That inaugural event was organized in four days.

Manzoni said this year they added the pie-tossing event, balloon twisting and face painting booths, cotton candy, hot dogs and more.

The Comsewogue girls’ varsity and junior varsity field hockey teams were also at the event. While many of them were dancing to the music there, they also donated money and helped organize the buckets for people to dump water on themselves or others during the ice bucket challenge. The buckets were arranged at the end of the event to spell out “ICE ALS.”

“The goal is to have this and other events that Ride For Life supports and make them bigger and better,” Manzoni said.

Although he did not know how much money the group raised this year, Manzoni hoped it matched or exceeded the amount of money raised last year, $5,000. He added that successful research into ALS can also help research for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, which are more common but have similarities.

According to the ALS Association’s website, the disease affects around 6,400 people annually in the United States alone. Only 10 percent of people who are diagnosed with the disease inherited it, while the rest are affected by the disease at random.

For people and organizations like Ride For Life, these events are important.

The goal is “to build awareness and money so that we can continue [our efforts],” Manzoni said.

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Participants dump buckets of ice water over their heads during last year’s event. File photo by Erika Karp

This challenge can’t get much colder, and for the second year in a row, Mount Sinai is looking for help icing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Last year, 500 participants from all over the North Shore came out to Heritage Park in Mount Sinai for the Ride for Life Ice ALS challenge, to raise money to help spread awareness and find a cure for ALS.

The disease affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing motor neurons to degenerate. People with the disease lose control over their muscles, leaving them unable to speak, eat, move or breathe on their own.

With events like the one at Heritage Park, people all over the world have brought attention to ALS, and on Aug. 26, Mount Sinai is doing it again.

Game booths, face painting, balloon twisting, dunk tanks and pie tosses are just a few of the events listed for Wednesday’s ice bucket challenge. Admission to the event, which begins at 5 p.m., is free, and T-shirts and other ALS awareness items will be available for purchase. Hot dogs, cotton candy and soda will also be available, as well as a limited supply of buckets.

To help support the cause, create a team or collect pledges for the Big Dump, which will begin promptly at 7 p.m.

“Last year, more than 500 people participated in the challenge and I expect to see a bigger crowd this year,” Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said in a press release. “We need all the help we can get from friends, family, businesses, sports teams and more to come together so we can find a cure for ALS.”

Paper pledge forms can be found on www.alsrideforlife.org. In the event of bad weather, a rain date is scheduled for Sept. 2. Email RFLoffice21@aol.com or go to Facebook’s ALS Ride for Life page for more information.

Tommy the chimp looks through his cage upstate. Photo from Nonhuman Rights Project

The two chimpanzees housed at Stony Brook University will not be granted the personhood necessary to allow them to challenge their captivity, a state Supreme Court judge ruled in an animal rights advocacy group’s lawsuit against the school.

Justice Barbara Jaffe ruled in her July 30 decision that Hercules and Leo, the two male chimps used for research at Stony Brook University’s Department of Anatomical Sciences, would not be granted a “writ of habeas corpus,” as petitioned for in the Nonhuman Rights Project’s suit against the university. The animal rights group had petitioned the judge with hopes of forcing the university to move the chimps to the Florida-based Save the Chimps animal sanctuary.

“The similarities between chimpanzees and humans inspire the empathy felt for a beloved pet,” Jaffe said in her decision. “Efforts to extend legal rights to chimpanzees are thus understandable; someday they may even succeed. For now, however, given the precedent to which I am bound it is hereby ordered that the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is denied.”

Jaffe cited previous suits the Nonhuman Rights Project had headed up, including one referencing a chimpanzee named Tommy who was being held through Circle L Trailers in Gloversville, NY. In that case, the Fulton County Supreme Court dismissed the Nonhuman Rights Project’s appeal to have the chimp released.

Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, said his group was still looking forward to appealing Jaffe’s decision to the state Supreme Court’s Appellate Division’s first judicial department.

“Unlike Justice Jaffe, [the first judicial department] is not bound by the decision of the Third Department in Tommy’s case,” Wise said in a statement.

Despite the judge’s ruling, Susan Larson, an anatomical sciences professor at SBU, previously said both Hercules and Leo will retire from the facility’s research center and be gone by September. Larson did not return requests for comment.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, however, said it would work to ensure the chimps are released to a sanctuary nevertheless.

“We applaud Stony Brook for finally doing the right thing,” Lauren Choplin of the Nonhuman Rights Project wrote on the group’s website. “We have made it clear that we remain willing to assist Stony Brook in sending Hercules and Leo to Save the Chimps in Ft. Pierce, Florida, where we have arranged for them to be transferred, or to have an appropriate member sanctuary of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, as we did in Tommy’s case. We have made it equally clear that, if Stony Brook attempts to move Hercules and Leo to any other place, we will immediately seek a preliminary injunction to prevent this move pending the outcome of all appeals, as we succeeded in doing in Tommy’s case last year.”

New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana owns the chimps, and their next destination was not clear.

The court first ordered the school to show cause and writ of habeas corpus — a command to produce the captive person and justify their detention — but struck out the latter on April 21, one day after releasing the initial order, making it a more administrative move simply prompting the university to defend why it detains the animals.

In an earlier press release from 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project said the chimpanzee plaintiffs are “self-aware” and “autonomous” and therefore should have the same rights as humans. Hercules and Leo are currently being used in a locomotion research experiment in SBU’s Department of Anatomical Sciences.

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From left, Isaac Carrico with Cannon, 5, and Elizabeth Boon with Sheridan, 16 months, at a beach in North Carolina. Photo by Jim Hinckley

When bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, they enter a category that spurs scientists and doctors to search for alternative remedies.

Bacteria can live singly, in what’s called the planktonic state, in groups or colonies, in which case they form a biofilm, or in numerous possibilities in between. In the biofilm state, they become more resistant to antibiotics, which increases the urgency to find a way to break up the bacterial party.

Elizabeth Boon, an associate professor of chemistry at Stony Brook University, has worked with a gas that, in some species of bacteria, appears to affect biofilm formation. While the details vary from one species to another, scientists have found that low concentrations of nitric oxide most often cause bacteria to leave biofilms.

Boon has discovered nitric oxide-sensing proteins in several strains of bacteria, which might help shed light on how this gas acts as a trigger for bacteria.

Boon’s discoveries are “innovative because they provide a previously important missing link between how bacteria behave in the human body and how the human system fails to counteract bacterial infection and the inflammation it causes,” explained Nicole Sampson, professor and chair in the Department of Chemistry.

Sampson, who called Boon a “rising star in chemical biology,” said her colleague’s work is “providing a much needed molecular explanation for the communication that occurs between bacteria and animals.”

Biofilms have implications for human health, Boon said. While they can be positive, generally speaking, she suggested, they are negative.

“A lot of diseases are caused by biofilms,” while biofilms may play a role with others as well, Boon said. “Open wounds that won’t heal are thought to be the result of biofilm injections around the wound, while people with cystic fibrosis get infections around their lungs.”

Biofilms also may play a part in hospital-borne infections. In a biofilm, bacteria are up to 1,000 times more resistant to antibiotics, Boon said. The exact concentration at which the bacteria switches between a signal from the gas to a group defense varies from one species of bacteria to another.

Similar to hemoglobin, which binds to oxygen in red blood cells and carries it around the body, this protein attaches to nitric oxide. The sensor protein usually causes a change that alters the concentration of cyclic di-GMP, a common bacterial-signaling molecule.

“The iron-containing protein we discovered has a sensitivity to nitric oxide” in low concentration, she said. In terms of a possible treatment of conditions that might improve with a reduction in biofilms, Boon explained that simply blocking the receptor for nitric oxide would cause considerably more harm than good because “anything we could think of to bind would interfere with our own nitric oxide or oxygen-binding protein,” she said.

Still, after the gas binds to the bacteria, there are reactions later on that are exclusive to bacteria.

Boon has also discovered a second protein that binds to nitric oxide, which is called NosP, for nitric oxide-sending protein. This protein has a different architecture from the original HNOx protein and may help explain how those same bacteria without HNOx still respond to the same gas.

Boon recognizes the potential opportunity to use any information for biofilm infections.

Boon, who is working with scientists at Stony Brook, Columbia and at Justus-Leibig-Universität Giessen in Germany, is proposing to work with computational biologists to screen the library of virtual molecules against bacterial proteins.

Boon was nearing the end of her Ph.D. research when she started working with proteins. She did her postdoctoral research in a lab that was characterizing iron proteins. The lab was studying nitric oxide in mammals.

Boon’s lab is down the hall from her husband’s, Isaac Carrico, who is in the same department. The chemists met in graduate school at the California Institute of Technology. The couple lives in Stony Brook with their 5-year-old son, Cannon, and their 16-month-old daughter, Sheridan.

As for her work, Boon is eager to continue to find answers to so many unanswered questions.

“We’re constantly learning, which is subtly shifting the direction of our research,” she said. “That will continue for a long time [because] there’s a whole lot we don’t understand.”

A view of the Demerec Laboratory, slated to house a proposed Center for Therapeutics Research. The laboratory, completed in 1953, needs an upgrade. Photo from CSHL

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research center that has produced eight Nobel Prize winners and is stocked with first-class scientists generating reams of data every year, shared some numbers earlier this week on its economic impact on Long Island.

The facility brought in about $140 million in revenue in 2013 to Long Island from federal grants, private philanthropy, numerous scientific educational programs and the commercialization of technology its scientists have developed, according to a report, “Shaping Long Island’s Bioeconomy: The Economic Impact of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory,” compiled by Appleseed, a private consulting firm.

At the same time the lab tackles diseases like cancer, autism and Parkinson’s, and employs 1,106 people with 90 percent working full time and 987 living on Long Island.

“We are recognized as being one of the top research institutions throughout the world,” Bruce Stillman, the president and CEO of CSHL said in an interview. The economic impact may help Long Islanders become “aware that such a prestigious institution exists in their backyard.”

Stillman highlighted programs that benefit the community, including public lectures, concerts and the school of education, which includes the DNA Learning Center, a tool to build a greater understanding of genetics.
The financial benefit to the economy extends well beyond Long Island, too.

“The research we do has an enormous impact on the development by others of therapeutics and plant science in agriculture,” Stillman said.

Indeed, Pfizer recently received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for a breast cancer drug called Ibrance that is expected to produce $5 billion in annual sales by 2020. The research that helped lead to that drug was conducted at CSHL in 1994.

In its 125-year history, this is the first time the laboratory has provided a breakdown of its financial benefit.
The impetus for this report occurred a few years ago, when Stillman met with Stony Brook University President Dr. Samuel Stanley Jr. and Sam Aronson, who was then the CEO of Brookhaven National Laboratory.

“We were talking about promoting further interactions and seeking state support,” Stillman said.

This year, CSHL will bring online a preclinical experimental therapeutics facility that will build out the nonprofit group’s research capabilities.

At the same time, CSHL is awaiting word on a $25 million grant it is seeking from New York State to support a proposed Center for Therapeutics Research.

The center would cost about $75 million in total, with CSHL raising money through philanthropic donations, partnerships with industry and federal aid. The center would “fit in well with our affiliation with North Shore-LIJ [Health System],” Stillman said.

CSHL plans to create the center in the Demerec Laboratory, which was completed in 1953 and needs an upgrade. Named after Milislav Demerec, a previous director at CSHL who mass-produced penicillin that was shipped overseas to American troops during World War II, the building has been home to four Nobel Prize-winning scientists: Barbara McClintock, Alfred Hershey, Rich Roberts and Carol Greider.

The renovated lab would house a broad range of research strengths, with candidates including a number of cancer drugs that are in the early stages of clinical trials; a therapeutic effort for spinal muscular atrophy, which is the leading genetic cause of death among infants; diabetes; and obesity.

The revenue from CSHL, as well as that from BNL, SBU and North Shore-LIJ, Stillman said, all have a “huge economic benefit to the Long Island community.”

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Patricia Thompson photo from Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Patricia Thompson gets a call from her sister Kathy Hobson when people in San Angelo, Texas — where Thompson grew up and where her sister and brother live — when someone has cancer. They want to know what Thompson thinks of their treatment.

While Thompson is not a medical doctor, she has been working as a scientist to develop ways to discriminate high-risk patient populations from low-risk patients to limit “toxic treatments in low-risk individuals” and improve the efficacy of aggressive treatment in high risk-patients. The goal, she said, is to better treat patients based on the specific pathobiology of their disease.

Thompson, who came to Stony Brook University last October as a professor of pathology and associate director of Basic Research at the Cancer Center, is pleased with the support from the university.

“There’s a real convergence of factors, including a strong commitment from the leadership, the Simons Center and the university medical school faculty and staff at Stony Brook,” she said. “We all want to see the Stony Brook Cancer Center bring prestige to our community, attract the finest talent in cancer research and clinical care and attract innovators and job builders.”

Thompson said Cancer Center Director Yusuf Hannun, Medical School Research Dean Lina Obeid, Pathology Department Chairman Ken Shroyer, and Dean of the Medical School Ken Kaushansky have all led the charge.
Shroyer is pleased Thompson joined the effort. “Bringing her here was an incredible coup,” he said. She brings “real national prominence” and led one of the “most important clinical and translational research programs in breast and colorectal cancer.”

Thompson is committed to furthering her own research studies, while balancing between critical basic science discoveries and their clinical impact.

For some scientists, she wants to assist researchers as they move from the bench to the first human study. She helps them understand who needs to be involved to advance a potential diagnostic tool or novel treatment.

Still, she endorses the benefits of basic research. “Application is always an important long-term goal, but scientific exploration for new discovery is critical to advancements,” she said. Applied and basic research are “neither mutually exclusive approaches.”

Thompson studies colorectal and breast cancer because both have an inflammatory component and an immune element. She’s exploring what is shared between these two cancers as common targets for prevention and treatment.

Colon cancer provides a window that helps scientists and doctors understand the way cancer progresses.
“Our ability to study the premalignant to malignant progression in colorectal cancer has provided important basic knowledge of how cancers develop and taught us about how cells defend against tumorigenesis and how these systems fail,” she said.

Thompson went through some formative professional and personal experiences during graduate school that shaped her career. In the mid-1990s, she was studying an autoimmune disease in which she worked on an animal model with a neuroimmunologist.

“I wanted to know that all this work I was doing with animals was contributing to the disease in humans,” she said.

Around the same time, her father, Jim Thompson, who owned and operated Angelo Tool Company, learned he had stage IV colorectal cancer. He was diagnosed in 1995, before major advances in colorectal cancer treatment. Her father received compassionate care use of a new therapy, enabling him to live for three more years, considerably longer than his initial two-month prognosis. If he had been diagnosed five years later and received a platinum-based regimen, he would have “gained even more time,” she said.

Thompson said she and her family struggle with the fact that her father showed symptoms he kept to himself, largely out of fear. If his cancer had been detected earlier, she believes it is likely he could have been cured.

She suggests people not be “afraid of a cancer diagnosis” and recommends “routine screening” and consultation with a doctor if they show symptoms.

Thompson lives in Rocky Point with her husband, Michael Hogan, who is the vice president of life sciences at Applied DNA Sciences.

As for her work, Thompson believes her research might help physicians and their patients.
Her research aims to develop “diagnostic tests that help in prognosis” while identifying “patients that may achieve more benefit from aggressive chemotherapy,” she said.