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Stony Brook Cancer Center

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File photo from Stony Brook University

An award-winning scientist, grandmother, aunt, mother and wife, Dr. Lina Obeid, died Nov. 29 at the age of 64 after a recurrence of lung cancer.

Lina Obeid spending time with her granddaughter Evelyn. Photo by Marya Hannun

Born in New York and raised in Lebanon, Obeid was a State University of New York distinguished professor of medicine and the dean of research at Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, where she conducted research on cancer and aging. In 2015, she was named as one of The Village Times Herald’s People of the Year along with her husband Dr. Yusuf Hannun.

A Celebration of Life memorial service for Obeid will take place Dec. 7 at Flowerfield in St. James from 11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. and will include remarks and a reception. Attendees are encouraged to wear bright colors.

SBU faculty appreciated Obeid’s scientific, administrative and mentoring contributions, as well as her engaging style.

Michael Bernstein, interim president of SBU, said Obeid was “very well liked and respected” and that her loss leaves a “big hole” at the university.

Obeid “oversaw our research programs, specifically the core facilities on which all our laboratory scientists depend, for sample analysis, for microscopy of cells” among other areas, Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, dean of Renaissance School of Medicine wrote in an email.

He lauded Obeid’s personable approach, which he said, “rubbed off on many people,” creating a “renewed sense of optimism in our ability to impact all three missions: research, teaching and clinical care.”

Obeid and Hannun, who is the director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center, knew each other in high school, started dating in medical school and were married for 36 years. The couple recently shared a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 16th International Conference on Bioactive Lipids in Cancer, Inflammation and Related Diseases in October. The award represents the first time a woman received this honor.

Supriya Jayadev, who was a graduate student in Hannun’s lab at Duke University and is the executive director of Clallam Mosaic in Port Angeles, Washington, called Obeid a “role model” for women in science. “Not only was she a strong leader with the ability to compete in a male-dominated field, but she retained her femininity and grace.”

Daniel Raben, a professor of biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins Medicine, has known Obeid and Hannun for more than two decades.

“She had a huge impact on the sphingolipid field because of the contribution she made,” Raben said. “It’s a huge loss. She was a giant.”

Dr. Maurizio Del Poeta, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at SBU, knew Obeid since 1995.

“I once asked her if she had any advice for my grants to get funded,” he recalled in an email. Obeid suggested she didn’t know how to get funded, but that his work wouldn’t get funded if he didn’t submit proposals.

She “never took ‘no’ for an answer. She would insist and insist and insist again until she [would] persuade you and get a ‘yes,’” he added.

Del Poeta said Obeid did a “marvelous” job enhancing research facilities, while she was a “caring physician” for veterans at the Northport VA Medical Center.

Obeid and Hannun were co-directors of a National Institutes of Health program in Cancer Biology and Therapeutics, which this year received a grant renewal for another five years.

Obeid’s daughter Marya Hannun recalled her mother as “warm, honest, and funny” without being cynical. Marya said her mother cared about everyone around her and was rooting for them to succeed.

“During my childhood, she taught me that nothing was impossible if you are determined and gutsy.”

— Mayra Hannun

“During my childhood, she taught me that nothing was impossible if you are determined and gutsy,” Marya Hannun wrote in an email.

She suggested her mother was passionate about food, which shaped how they lived and traveled. When the family visited Greece, Obeid swam out for sea urchins, cracked them on rocks and ate them on the beach. She was a passionate cook who learned from her mother, Rosette, who wrote a Palestinian cookbook.

The Hannun family laughs “about how we plan out holidays around food and spend
our meals talking about the next meals,” Marya wrote.

Obeid was part of one of the first class of women admitted into the International College High School. She earned her bachelor of arts at Rutgers University, but was also creative as a child and interested in fashion and design.

“Anyone who [saw] her wouldn’t be surprised,” Marya said.

Obeid is survived by her husband, her parents, Rosette and Sami, her nieces and nephews, her triplet children and her two grandchildren.

Obeid and Hannun’s daughter Reem is married to Dr. Khaled Moussawi and lives in Baltimore. Awni and his wife Kathy Hannun have two children, Evelyn and Yusuf, and live in New York City.

Binks Wattenberg, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes that “people like [Obeid] only come along a few times in one’s lifetime.”

In an email, he recalled how she had a
“way of looking into your eyes and persuading you to do an experiment that she thought absolutely had to be done.” He appreciated her enthusiasm, which made Wattenberg feel as if he was doing “absolutely
essential work.”

Obeid regularly invited her researchers for meals at her house, where they felt as if they also joined the family, said Dr. Gerard Blobe, a professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine who earned his doctorate in Yusuf Hannun’s lab over 20 years ago.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for donations in Obeid’s name to the Stony Brook University Cancer Center. Potential donors can access the site at cancer.stonybrookmedicine.edu/giving.

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From left, Mia Cottone, Caroline Woo and Abbi Sasson hold a few wreaths that they made. Photo from Troop 551

Three local Girl Scouts have turned their Silver Award project into a continuous act of giving.

The girls install birdhouses at Stony Brook Cancer Center. Photo from Lise Sasson

Caroline Woo, Mia Cottone and Abbi Sasson, all from Troop 551, decided for their Silver Award project that they would build birdhouses for the patients at Stony Brook Cancer Center. Because the project was involved, and would take some time, the girls decided while their project was in the works they would lift patients’ spirits with handmade wreaths.

The group learned the craft from Carmen Tornos, a professor with the Renaissance School of Medicine, and the completed decorations were hung in the common patient areas. After a few months, the hospital raffled the wreaths to the cancer center staff to show appreciation.

The three said they enjoyed designing the wreaths so much that they decided to continue making them to raise money for the nonprofit Room4Love based in East Setauket, which provides bedroom makeovers for children with cancer.

The girls, who are all ninth-graders at P.J. Gelinas Junior High School, said the Silver Award project, where each Scout must create something that can have a lasting impact, requires Scouts to put in 50 hours of service. In addition to the birdhouses and wreaths, the girls put together goody bags for the patients and handed out birdseed for them to go outside, feed the birds and get some fresh air. The three said they chose the cancer center to help older patients, who are sometimes overlooked.

“We really learned that just little things can make a lasting impact on people’s lives,” Abbi said.

The other girls agreed.

“Even the small things that you don’t think matter to anyone, they do matter to a lot of people,” Caroline said.

The Girls Scouts said their parents have been a big help in providing materials for the wreaths, which they have been making all year round for every season. When it comes to Room4Love, the girls have been making the decorations for the nonprofit to raffle off, or they create them for family and friends who in turn donate to the organization. Mia was already familiar with Room4Love, which was started by her cousins, Maggie and Bella Diehl, eight years ago.

“It’s a good organization, and it helps a lot of kids,” Mia said.

Girl Scout Leader Sonya Cottone, Mia’s mother, said that she and co-leader Anne Hansen-Crowley are proud of the girls, who are willing to help out as much as they can.

“It makes us really proud, and we feel lucky to have a great group of kids,” she said.

The Girl Scouts work on wreaths.

Lucy Diehl, from Room4Love, said her daughters Maggie and Bella, despite being away at college, are still actively running the nonprofit, and she said all of them are humbled and grateful for all the support those in the Three Village area have given.

She added she’s not surprised that young people like the Girl Scouts are helping out.

“We live in a really good community that is always looking to give and looking to help, and certainly these kids, by making these wreaths, are doing just that,” Diehl said.

Eydie Woo, Caroline’s mother, said she credits the Girl Scouts for laying down good values for her daughter and friends. She said while the girls didn’t work directly with the patients, they did tour the hospital and saw the pediatric side, as well as the adult side, which had an impact on them.

“They’ve realized how fortunate they are, and that they’re able to do things like that and give back because there are kids who are really sick and they want to help them,” she said.

As for a large project such as the Silver Award, the girls had some advice to share.

“Even if it seems like getting started is hard, once you get in, you see just how rewarding and how almost eye-opening it is to realize the impact of what you can have on the world,” Abbi said.

For more information about Room4Love, visit www.room4love.org.

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A customer checks out the variety of salsas at the Three Village Artisan and Farmers Market in East Setauket. Photo from Linda Johnson

Visitors to the farmers market on the grounds of the Three Village Historical Society every Friday afternoon will discover new things this year, including a mission to help out a good cause.

The East Setauket Farmers Market has now been named the Three Village Artisan and Farmers Market, or nicknamed Three Village Market for short. Linda Johnson, owner of Chocology Unlimited and market manager, said the new name reflects the growing participation of vendors from across the Three Village area and the artisans, musicians and other makers on hand every week. This year, the market aims to raise money with various fundraisers throughout the season for Stony Brook Cancer Center, specifically the Healthy Forks and Move to Heal Survivorship series.

Attendees at a recent Three Village Artisan and Farmers Market visit the different tents on the grounds of the Three Village Historical Society. Photo from Linda Johnson

“We want to make the market more of a gathering place and at the same time give back to the community,” Johnson said.

The business owner said it made sense to partner with the cancer center’s program.

“It’s all about nutrition and eating healthy, and how people can eat healthy but also not spend a lot of money,” she said.

Jennifer Fitzgibbon, Stony Brook Cancer Center’s oncology nutritionist and the Healthy Forks program coordinator, said she was pleased when she heard the farmers market’s fundraisers would benefit the program.

“I am a firm believer in the addition of fresh produce and what the market features, so the fact that we’re going to be working together, I’m so excited about it,” Fitzgibbon said.

The nutritionist says she takes participants in the program to grocery stores, including Trader Joe’s, to show them how to make healthier choices while eating
affordably, and she plans to take them to the Three Village Market this year.

“I love going there,” she said. “I just think it’s such a beautiful climate. You go there and everyone is so friendly, and every little spot you look at — for example, the organic herbs and the pepper hot sauce — you can really get a nutritional sense from every little piece.”

Fitzgibbon said farmers markets offer fresher, more seasonal products, which means adding a better variety of nutrients to diets. She suggests eating five to eight servings of low-glycemic plant foods a day.

“I just think it’s such a beautiful climate. You go there and everyone is so friendly, and every little spot you look at — for example the organic herbs and the pepper hot sauce — you can really get a nutritional sense from every little piece.”

— Jennifer Fitzgibbon

As she works in conjunction with physical therapist Denise Dahlgren, the funds raised at the Three Village Market will go toward exercise equipment, including yoga mats and pedometers for participants in the Healthy Forks series.

Linda Bily, director of cancer patient advocacy and community outreach at Stony Brook Medicine, said the hospital always welcomes donations from the community. She said patients have received items
including cards from Scouts and hats knitted by senior citizens. One patient who received both a hat and a card was inspired to ask her company to create bags for cancer patients that were filled with hand sanitizers, tissues, lip balm and more.

“It’s hard for someone that isn’t going through cancer treatments to understand the value of these small, comforting things that say, ‘Hey, I got your back. Someone is looking out for you,’” Bily said.

Johnson said the market almost didn’t come together this year. She decided to help manage the market and reached out to the owners of Ann Marie’s Farmstand of Port Jefferson Station. They were the first to agree to be part of the new market and other businesses quickly joined the list of vendors.

The market opened June 1, and Johnson said each week more people are stopping by. She said there is also a tent where children can make crafts and listen to authors read their books.

“People have been very happy, which is really nice to see,” she said. “They’re liking what they’re seeing and feeling.”

The Three Village Artisan and Farmers Market is open every Friday until Oct. 26 from 3 to 7 p.m. It is located at 93 N. County Road in Setauket.

Dr. Jennifer Arnold leads the Parade of Survivors. Photo by Cindy Swanson

By Heidi Sutton

On Sunday, June 4, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in various locations across the country for National Cancer Survivors Day, a celebration of life for anyone who has been touched by cancer. Locally, the Stony Brook Cancer Center hosted its 13th annual event, made possible by sponsorship from the Stony Brook School of Medicine and Stony Brook University.

The weather cooperated as attendees participated in a variety of outdoor activities, such as the popular dunk-a-doc, bedpan golf, chemo bag toss and face painting, as well as musical entertainment. The day culminated with the Parade of Survivors to the tune of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”

Dr. Yusuf Hannun

“There is really no activity that I look forward to more every year than what we are doing here today, to celebrate you and to celebrate survivorship,” said Dr. Yusuf Hannun, director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center, to a crowd of survivors, doctors, nurses, family members and friends. “Looking around … I am really humbled to see how this event has been growing exponentially, from very modest beginnings of a handful of dedicated volunteers and determined survivors, to today with over 1,300 [attendees], 300 of them survivors,” he said.

Hannun also took the opportunity to speak about the new 245,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art Medical and Research Translation (MART) building, which served as the backdrop to the event and is scheduled to open by the end of this year. The director stated the new facility “will allow us to serve twice as many patients and their families … and allow us to continue to push back against cancer at all times. We are very excited to move into that building.”

The keynote speaker of the day was Dr. Jennifer Arnold, who is featured on TLC’s docudrama, “The Little Couple” along with her husband, Bill, who is originally from Port Jefferson Station, and their beautiful children, Will and Zoey. The show has served as an invaluable way to break down barriers and educate the public about people with disabilities.

Dr. Jennifer Arnold

Standing at just 3 feet and 2 inches, Arnold was born with a rare type of dwarfism called spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia, Strudwick type and has undergone over 30 surgeries in her lifetime. In 2013 she was diagnosed with stage 3 choriocarcinoma, a rare cancer that developed after a non-viable pregnancy. She graciously chose to share her fight with viewers of her show.

Now a three-year cancer survivor, Arnold shared her journey and personal lessons learned at Sunday’s event with a dynamic, motivational and inspirational presentation titled Surviving with Grace and received several standing ovations.

“Although I had a lot of life lessons [growing up], nothing taught me more than going through cancer,” said Arnold. “Sometimes life throws a wrench into the middle of your world and you have to be ready for that because life is short, no pun intended.”

“Going through chemotherapy changes you a lot, physically, emotionally, mentally…,” she said. After chemo, “I didn’t go back to normal, but I did go back to life. Truly it takes a village to go through your treatment and survivorship. It’s okay to accept that help.”

Arnold continued, “This is a wonderful life that we have and I am so blessed to be alive and to be able to share my story and I know that many of you in the audience feel the same way. … Whether it’s the fact that you’ve undergone treatment for cancer or whether you’ve had other obstacles in life, I hope that you too can overcome those obstacles and that you can survive with grace.”

File photo

By Samuel L. Stanley, Jr.

Samuel L. Stanley Jr.

In recognition of his dedication to the cancer fight, Stony Brook University proudly honored the 47th Vice President of the United States Joseph R. Biden Jr. at the Stars of Stony Brook Gala — our annual fundraising event — on Wednesday, April 19.

Hosted by the Stony Brook Foundation, the gala generates funds for student financial aid and a select academic area of excellence. This year, the university raised $6,946,000 in gifts and pledges, including $2,051,000 for scholarships and $4,895,000 to support the Stony Brook University Cancer Center. Since 2000, the event has raised more than $50 million.

As vice president, Joe Biden led the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force. Its mission: to double the rate of progress in preventing the disease that leads to more than 8 million deaths worldwide every year. The intention, said Biden in his remarks, was to infuse the cancer research culture with “the urgency of now.”

At Stony Brook, we share Joe Biden’s determination, sense of urgency and his fundamental confidence in our ability to make a difference in the fight against cancer. The Stony Brook Cancer Center brings together the brightest minds, enhancing purposeful collaboration, and creating strategic partnerships to share information and accelerate research.

Our researchers are receiving worldwide attention for a pioneering study of the genesis and behavior of cancer cells at the molecular level with the goal of one day helping to detect, treat and eventually eliminate the disease for good.

Through continual research and discovery, Stony Brook Cancer Center is on the forefront of cancer care. In the new Kavita and Lalit Bahl Center for Metabolomics and Imaging, for instance, Dr. Yusuf Hannun and Dr. Lina Obeid are receiving international recognition for their pioneering studies in the relationship between cancer and lipids, naturally occurring molecules in the body such as fats. Their work is changing what is known about the role lipids play in cancer and brings us closer to understanding how to prevent and treat the disease.

Next year, the Stony Brook Cancer Center will relocate from its current location on the Stony Brook Medicine campus to the new 254,000-square-foot Medical and Research Translation (MART) building, designed to enable scientists and physicians to work side by side to advance cancer research and imaging diagnostics.

We’re thrilled that for one big night, we shined a white-hot light on the cancer issue and worked to raise awareness and money that will no doubt play a continuing role in bringing an end to this disease.

Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. is president of Stony Brook University.

Honoree US Vice President Joe Biden (center) stands with Samuel L. Stanley Jr., President, Stony Brook University, Former and James H. Simons, Chair Emeritus, Stony Brook Fountation and IMAX CEO Richard L. Gelfond during the 2017 Stars of Stony Brook Gala at Chelsea Piers April 19, 2017, in New York, NY. (Mark Von Holden/AP Images for Stony Brook University)

Stony Brook University recognized the 47th vice president of the United States of America, the Honorable Joseph R. Biden Jr., at its 18th annual Stars of Stony Brook Gala on April 19 at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers in New York City. The former vice president was recognized for his outstanding career and dedication to the fight against cancer.

“Cancer touches us all in some way and at some point,” said Biden. “Everywhere I go, people share their stories of heartbreak and hope. And every day, I’m reminded that our work to end cancer as we know it is bigger than just a single person. It carries the hopes and dreams of millions of people who are praying that we succeed, praying for hope, praying for time — not someday, but now.”

As vice president, Biden led the White House Cancer Moonshot, with the mission to double the rate of progress in preventing and fighting the disease. Under his leadership, the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force catalyzed novel, innovative and impactful collaborations among 20 government agencies, departments and White House offices and over 70 private sector collaborations designed to achieve a decades’ worth of progress in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer in just five years.

In addition, Biden helped lead the effort to pass the 21st Century Cures Act that provides $1.8 billion over seven years for the Cancer Moonshot’s scientific priorities.

“We are privileged to have the opportunity to honor former Vice President Biden,” said Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley. “The Cancer Moonshot has the potential to transform cancer research and prevention around the world. This critical initiative is a reflection of the work our researchers and doctors are doing in Stony Brook Cancer Center labs — using insight, innovation and strategic collaborations to push the boundaries of what we know about how best to diagnose, treat and ultimately prevent the disease that is responsible for more than 8 million deaths a year worldwide.”

Research and discovery are at the heart of the Stony Brook ethos and the university’s Cancer Center is a shining example of its commitment to combating the malady. Stony Brook doctors are on the forefront of the next generation in cancer care.

The Cancer Center will relocate next year to the new 254,000 square-foot Medical and Research Translation facility (MART), which was designed to enable scientists and physicians to work side by side to advance cancer research and imaging diagnostic and will be the home to the new Bahl Center for Metabolomics and Imaging. Stony Brook researchers are receiving worldwide attention for their pioneering research into the genesis and behavior of cancer cells at the molecular level, which will one day help detect, treat, and eliminate the disease altogether.

Every spring the Stony Brook Foundation hosts the Stars of Stony Brook Gala to benefit student scholarships and a select academic program. Since its inception in 2000, the event has raised more than $42 million. A portion of the net proceeds from this year’s gala will support the Stony Brook Cancer Center.

Biden joins a distinguished roster of scholars, politicians, celebrities and luminaries who have been honored by the gala for their outstanding and relentless commitment to society, including Nobel Laureate CN Yang; actors Julie Andrews, Alan Alda and Ed Harris; founder of Renaissance Technologies Jim Simons; CA Technologies founder Charles Wang; and world-renowned conservationists Richard Leakey and Patricia Wright.

Escobar-Hoyos, center, holds her recent award, with Kenneth Shroyer, the chairman of the Department of Pathology at Stony Brook on the left and Steven Leach, the director of the David M. Rubenstein Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research on the right. Photo by Cindy Leiton

By Daniel Dunaief

While winter storm Niko in February closed schools and businesses and brought considerable precipitation to the region, it also coincided with great news for Luisa Escobar-Hoyos, who earned her doctorate from Stony Brook University.

Escobar-Hoyos, who is a part-time research assistant professor in the Department of Pathology at Stony Brook University and a postdoctoral fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, received word that she was the sole researcher selected in the country to receive the prestigious $600,000 Pancreatic Cancer Action Network–American Association for Cancer Research Pathway to Leadership Award.

When she heard the news, Escobar-Hoyos said she was “filled with excitement.” After she spoke with her husband Nicolas Hernandez and her current mentor at MSKCC, Steven Leach, the director of the David M. Rubenstein Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research, she called her parents in her native Colombia.

Her mother, Luz Hoyos, understood her excitement not only as a parent but as a cancer researcher herself. “My interest in cancer research started because of my mom,” Escobar-Hoyos said. Observing her example and “the excitement and the impact she has on her students and young scientists working with her, I could see myself” following in her footsteps.

The researcher said her joy at winning the award has blended with “a sense of responsibility” to the growing community of patients and their families who have developed a deadly disease that is projected to become the second leading cause of cancer-related death by 2020, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, moving past colorectal cancer.

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has awarded $35 million in funding to 142 scientists across the country from 2003 to 2016, many of whom have continued to improve an understanding of this insidious form of cancer.

David Tuveson, the current director of the Cancer Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, received funds from PanCan to develop the first genetically engineered mouse model that mimics human disease. Jiyoung Ahn, the associate director of the NYU Cancer Institute, used the funds to discover that two species of oral bacteria are associated with an over 50 percent increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

Over the first decade since PanCan started awarding these grants, the recipients have been able to convert each dollar granted into $8.28 in further pancreatic cancer research funding.

In her research, Escobar-Hoyos suggests that alternative splicing, or splitting up messenger RNA at different locations to create different versions of the same protein, plays an important part in the start and progress of pancreatic cancer. “Her preliminary data suggest that alternative splicing could be associated with poorer survival and resistance to treatment,” Lynn Matrisian, the chief science officer at PanCan, explained in an email. “The completion of her project will enhance our understanding of this molecular modification and how it impacts pancreatic cancer cell growth, survival and the progression to more advanced stages of this disease.”

Escobar-Hoyos explained that she will evaluate how mutations in transcriptional regulators and mRNA splicing factors influence gene expression and alternative splicing of mRNAs to promote the disease and aggression of the most common form of pancreatic cancer. Later, she will evaluate how splicing regulators and alternatively spliced genes enriched in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma contribute to tumor maintenance and resistance to therapy.

Escobar-Hoyos will receive $75,000 in each of the first two years of the award to pay for a salary or a technician, during a mentored phase of the award. After those two years, she will receive $150,000 for three years, when PanCan expects her to be in an independent research position.

Escobar-Hoyos said her graduate research at Stony Brook focused on ways to understand the biological differences between patients diagnosed with the same cancer type. She helped discover the way a keratin protein called K17 entered the nucleus and brought another protein into the cytoplasm, making one type of tumor more aggressive.

While Escobar-Hoyos works full time at Memorial Sloan Kettering, she continues to play an active role in Kenneth Shroyer’s lab, where she conducted experiments for her doctorate. She is the co-director of the Pathology Translational Research Laboratory, leading studies that are focused on pancreatic cancer biomarkers. The chair in the Department of Pathology, Shroyer extended an offer for her to continue to address the research questions her work addressed after she started her postdoctoral fellowship.

“When you do research projects and you develop them from the beginning, they are like babies and you really want to see how they evolve,” Escobar-Hoyos said. Numerous projects are devoted to different aspects of K17, she said.

Shroyer said Escobar-Hoyos had already been the first author on two landmark studies related to the discovery and validation of K17 even before her work with pancreatic cancer. “She has also conducted highly significant new research” that she is currently developing “that I believe will transform the field of pancreatic cancer research,” Shroyer wrote in an email.

Shroyer hopes to recruit Escobar-Hoyos to return to Stony Brook when she completes her fellowship to a full-time position as a tenure track assistant professor. “Based on her achievements in basic research and her passion to translate her findings to improve the care of patients with pancreatic cancer, I have no doubt she is one of the most promising young pancreatic cancer research scientists of her generation,” he continued.

Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center, said Escobar-Hoyos’s work provided a new and important angle with considerable promise in understanding pancreatic cancer. “She is a tremendous example of success for junior investigators,” Hannun wrote in an email.

Escobar-Hoyos said she is hoping, a year or two from now, to transition to becoming an independent scientist and principal investigator, ideally at an academic institution. “Because of my strong ties with Stony Brook and all the effort the institution is investing in pancreatic research” SBU is currently her first choice.

Escobar-Hoyos is pleased that she was able to give back to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network when she and a team of other friends and family helped raise about $4,000 as a part of a PurpleStride 5K walk in Prospect Park earlier this month.“I was paying forward what this foundation has done for me in my career,” she said.

Matrisian said dedicated scientists offer hope to patients and their families. “Researchers like Escobar-Hoyos spark scientific breakthroughs that may create treatments and ultimately, improve the lives of patients,” she suggested.

David Matus in his lab at Stony Brook University. Photo courtesy of SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

At first look, the connection between a roundworm, a zebrafish and cancer appears distant. After all, what can a transparent worm or a tropical fish native to India and the surrounding areas reveal about a disease that ravages its victims and devastates their families each year?

Plenty, when talking to David Matus and Benjamin Martin, assistant professors in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University whose labs are next door to each other. The scientific tandem recently received the 2017 Damon Runyon–Rachleff Innovation Award, which includes a two-year grant of $300,000, followed by another renewable grant of $300,000 to continue this work.

In the first of a two-part series, Times Beacon Record Newspapers will profile the work of Matus this week. Next week the Power of Three will feature Martin’s research on zebrafish.

Long ago a scientist studying dolphin cognition in Hawaii, Matus has since delved into the world of genetic development, studying the roundworm, or, as its known by its scientific name, Caenorhabditis elegans. An adult of this worm, which lives in temperate soil environments, measures about 1 millimeter, which means it would take about 70 of them lined up end to end to equal the length of an average earthworm.

From left, David Matus and Benjamin Martin. Photo courtesy of SBU

Matus specifically is interested in exploring how a cell called the anchor cell in a roundworm invades through the basement membrane, initiating a uterine-vulval connection that allows adult roundworms to pass eggs to the outside environment. He is searching for the signals and genetic changes that give the anchor cell its invasive properties.

Indeed, it was through a serendipitous discovery that he observed that the loss of a single gene results in anchor cells that divide but don’t invade. These dividing cells are still anchor cells, but they have lost the capacity to breach the basement membrane. That, Matus said, has led the team to explore the ways cancer has to decide whether to become metastatic and invade other cells or proliferate, producing more copies of itself. In some cancers, their hypothesis suggests, the cells either divide or invade and can’t do both at the same time. It could be a cancer multitasking bottleneck.

Mark Martindale, the director of the Whitney Laboratory at the University of Florida in Gainesville who was Matus’ doctoral advisor, said a cell’s decision about when to attach to other cells and when to let go involves cell polarity, the energetics of motility and a host of other factors that are impossible to study in a mammal.

The roundworm presents a system “in which it is possible to manipulate gene expression, and their clear optical properties make them ideal for imaging living cell behavior,” Martindale explained in an email. Seeing these developmental steps allows one to “understand a variety of biomedical issues.”

Last year, Matus and Martin were finalists for the Runyon–Rachleff prize. In between almost getting the award and this year, the team conducted imaging experiments in collaboration with Eric Betzig, a group leader at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia. Betzig not only brings expertise in optical imaging technologies but also has won a Nobel Prize.

“We really appreciate the opportunity to work with [Betzig] and his lab members on this project,” said Matus, who also published a review paper in Trends in Cell Biology that explored the link between cell cycle regulation and invasion. He and his graduate student Abraham Kohrman explored the literature to find cases that showed the same switching that he has been exploring with the roundworm.

Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center, said the work is highly relevant to cancer as it explores fundamental issues about how cells behave when they invade, which is a key property of cancer cells. Hannun said the tandem’s hypothesis about division and invasion is “consistent with previous understandings but I believe this is the first time it is proposed formally,” he suggested in an email.

Their work could apply to invasive epithelial cancers, suggested Scott Powers, a professor in the Department of Pathology at Stony Brook and the director of Clinical Cancer Genomics at the Cancer Center. That could include breast, colon, prostate, lung and pancreatic cancers, noted Powers, who is a recent collaborator with Matus and Martin.

The additional funding allows Matus and Martin to focus more of their time on their research and less on applying for other grants, Matus said.

Back row from left, David Matus and his father in law Doug Killebrew; front row from left, Maile 9, Bria, 7, and Matus’ wife Deirdre Killebrew. Photo by Richard Row

Matus lives in East Setauket with his wife Deirdre Killebrew, who works for Applied DNA Sciences. The couple met when they were working with dolphins in Hawaii. Matus’ first paper was on dolphin cognition, although he switched to evolutionary and developmental biology when he worked in Martindale’s lab at the University of Hawaii.

Martindale described Matus as prolific during his time in his lab, publishing numerous papers that were “profoundly important in our continued understanding of the relationship between genotype and phenotype and the evolution of biological complexity,” Martindale wrote in an email.

Following in Martindale’s footsteps, Matus replaced his middle name, Samuel, in publications with a Q. Martindale said several of his colleagues adopted the phony Q to pay homage to the attitude that drove them to pursue careers in science. Matus has now passed that Q on to Korhman, who is his first graduate student.

Matus and Killibrew have two daughters, Bria and Maille, who are 7 and 9 years old. Their children have a last name that combines each of their surnames, Matubrew. Matus said he feels “fortunate when I got here three years ago that they had me set up my lab next to [Martin]. That gave us an instantaneous atmosphere for collaboration.”

Students in teacher Eric Gustafson’s fourth-grade class at Setauket Elementary School hold wrapped gifts to be donated. Photo from Three Village school district

By Rebecca Anzel

Opportunities for warming hearts abound during the holiday season and those who give tend to receive much more.

Five years ago, when Linda Bily, cancer patient advocacy and community outreach director at Stony Brook Cancer Center, and others noticed some patients did not have family members to share the holidays with, she started the Adopt a Family program.

The first year, 20 families were “adopted” by 20 departments, which donated gifts such as winter coats, new sneakers and gift cards for grocery stores and gas stations. This year, Bily estimates that 75 families will be adopted by departments and community groups.

“This is a good thing for patients going through chemo because it’s one less thing they have to worry about,” Bily said. “The people that donate the gifts get as much out of it as the patients — and they always go above and beyond. It makes them feel good to do it.”

From left, Stony Brook ‘elves’ Maryellen Bestenheider, Mary Alice Plant and Michele Hass make the season bright for some cancer patients and their families. Photo from Stony Brook Cancer Center
From left, Stony Brook ‘elves’ Maryellen Bestenheider, Mary Alice Plant and Michele Hass make the season bright for some cancer patients and their families. Photo from Stony Brook Cancer Center

Patients and their families are nominated by the nursing staff and social workers. The only requirements are that they receive treatment at the cancer center and are facing financial hardship.

Alicia McArdle has been a social worker at the cancer center for two years and nominates families to participate in the program. She said what separates this program from others like it is that it includes cancer patients of all ages, not just children.

“So many people are nominated, it’s unbelievable,” McArdle said. “It’s a way to give our patients joy during a difficult time, and it definitely brightens their days.”

Once a patient agrees to participate he or she gives Bily a wish list. It contains items like a new pair of sweatpants, music, or gloves — never anything like a new Xbox or cellphone, Bily said

“You wouldn’t believe how a new pair of sneakers and a really warm winter jacket can change someone’s life,” McArdle said. “It really helps because most of our patients want to pay their bills first and they put themselves last. It’s nice to put them first for once, and they’re so appreciative for it.” Only first names are shared, in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Bily said once a group has participated in the program, it almost always does so again. That’s true of the cancer center’s radiology department, which has adopted a family every year. Elizabeth Kramer said her 22-person department looks forward to the holiday tradition.

“We’re all very fortunate and we want to help these people that are in need,” she said. “A lot of them cannot afford to buy gifts for their family, so we enjoy purchasing and wrapping presents for them.”

Radiology is adopting a family of four this year — a mom, a dad and two children. Kramer said the father asked for music to relax and “zone out” while he receives chemo. Kramer added the radiology department always purchases a supermarket gift card as well.

In December 2014, Judith Mitchell, a mother of five was receiving radiation at the center to treat her breast cancer, and she needed help. She knew she would have trouble affording gifts such as clothes and shoes for her holiday presents for her children.

Mitchell was asked by cancer center staff if she wanted to participate in the program.

“The program was a blessing because there’s no way we could have done for these children what our adopters had done,” she said. “It’s nice to know that people are really willing to help others who cannot help themselves, because sometimes when you have cancer, it’s hard. My cancer did not affect me alone, it affected my whole family.”

“What’s nice about this program is that it’s giving and it warms the heart. “It’s such a beautiful experience being able to provide gifts and it gets your mind off yourself during the holiday season.”

— Jennifer Scarlatos

Business owners in the community also get involved.

“What’s nice about this program is that it’s giving and it warms the heart,” Jennifer Scarlatos, co-owner of Toast Coffeehouse in Port Jefferson, said. “It’s such a beautiful experience being able to provide gifts and it gets your mind off yourself during the holiday season.”

She participated in the program with her employees last year, and also helped her daughter’s fourth-grade class at Setauket Elementary School adopt a family.

Teacher Eric Gustafson said it was a great opportunity to remind his students of the importance of giving — not just receiving. He remembered the children excitedly telling each other about gifts they picked out while they all wrapped the presents together.

“It was such a fun day and the kids really got into it,” he said. “Once you put together everything they bought, it made for a pretty impressive pile, and it put us in the spirit of giving.”

Gustafson encouraged other classrooms to participate, and Kramer added churches and other groups should consider it as well.

‘Short But Sweet,’ the butterfly bra created by Tammy Colletti in memory of her mother. Photo by Erin Dueñas

By Erin Dueñas

Covered in feathers, decorated in shells and bedazzled in rhinestones, the bras on display at the Wang Center at Stony Brook University last Thursday looked like they could have been part of the latest collection from an eccentric lingerie designer. The bras were actually created by members of the community, local businesses, cancer survivors and television personalities as part of Bodacious Bras for a Cure, a fundraising event to benefit women’s cancer programs at Stony Brook Cancer Center.

Dr. Michael Pearl says the services offered to cancer patients involved in the cancer center help to restore some control in their lives. Photo by Erin Duenas
Dr. Michael Pearl says the services offered to cancer patients involved in the cancer center help to restore some control in their lives. Photo by Erin Duenas

Bodacious Bras was initiated by Linda Bily, director of Cancer Patient Advocacy and the Woman to Woman program at the center and inspired by a similar event called Creative Cups at Adelphi University. Bras were decorated and then put up for auction at the Stony Brook event. “It’s just a fun, different way of promoting awareness of all women’s cancers,” Bily said.

Twenty-two bras were auctioned off, raising $5,000 that will help fund women’s patient services at the Cancer Center.

According to Bily, each bra entry had to be created on a size 36C garment. Nothing perishable was permitted on the creations and the entire bra needed to be decorated. A brief summary accompanied each bra explaining the creator’s motivation. The “Mandala” bra, which fetched $250, created by local artist Jessica Randall, was made of shells and won the Best in Show prize. “I made this bra,” Randall’s summary read, “to honor women who have struggled with the debilitating disease of breast cancer.” “That Meatball Place” bra was created by the restaurant of the same name, located in Patchogue. Featuring bows and rhinestones and the restaurant’s logo, the bra fetched $500 at the auction. “Whichever [meatball] style suits you, we support them all, while always saving room for hope of a cure,” that summary read. Another bra called the “Hooter Holster” was created by Port Jefferson Station native Clinton Kelly, co-host of  “The Chew.”

22 bras were featured at Bodacious Bras for a Cure bringing in $5000 to fund women’s cancer services. Photo by Erin Duenas
22 bras were featured at Bodacious Bras for a Cure bringing in $5000 to fund women’s cancer services. Photo by Erin Duenas

Tammy Colletti of Setauket made a bra called “Short But Sweet” dedicated to her mother Marion who passed away a year and a half ago. Using purple and teal feathers, the bra was made to look like a butterfly. A small vial containing a piece of paper that read “Cure Breast Cancer” rested in the center in between the feathers.

Colletti, who volunteers at the Cancer Center, said she was inspired to create a butterfly bra after watching her mother live out the remainder of her life in hospice care. “When they brought her in to hospice she was all wrapped up, and I told her it looked like she was in a cocoon,” Colletti said. When she passed away, Colletti imagined her mother shedding that cocoon and turning into a butterfly. “She was transformed into something beautiful, into something that I know is flying all around us.”

The Cancer Center provides a wide variety of support to ill patients to help them cope with a cancer diagnosis. In the Woman to Woman program, patients can get help with childcare, transportation to treatments, financial assistance to pay for costs associated with being ill and selecting wigs if needed.

Dr. Michael Pearl, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology, said that a cancer diagnosis has a huge impact not just on the woman affected but on her family as well. “In a lot of families, the woman acts as the glue that keeps everything together,” Pearl said. When a woman gets sick, often the day-to-day operations of family life get disrupted. That is when the Woman to Woman program can step in.

“We have volunteers that provide active support services,” Pearl said. Services could even include driving a patient’s children to sports or band practice. “Getting sick takes away your control. The program tries to restore some control and normalcy into their day-to-day lives.”

Bily said she was expecting Bodacious Bras to take a while to catch on, but she was happy with the positive response of the event. “It was a great night,” she said. “People who designed a bra are already thinking about what they will make next year.”