Working in Partnership:
Cornell Researchers and the Survivor Community
By Silvia Gambacorta Hoffman
On October 22, the Coalition participated in a day-long seminar at Cornell University called The Science of Cancer Research. Designed to connect community members with cancer researchers in training, this informal and interactive event was attended by members of the Coalition’s Research Committee, Advocacy Committee, and Emerging Leaders program, who traveled to Ithaca on a beautiful autumn day. In attendance were Erin Bowman, Silvia Gambacorta-Hoffman, Nancy Gramkee-Cuer, Jill Gress, Wendy Gottorff, Kate Gugliandro, Liz Hoyler, Leni Rayburn, and Alexis Stein.
Our participation in this event came about thanks to Bob Riter, a breast cancer survivor, retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes, author, and member of the Coalition’s Research Advisory Board. He and Dr. Robert Weiss, Professor of Molecular Genetics at Cornell, have developed a program that brings together students, researchers, and community members: the Cornell Community Cancer Partnership.
The seminar was open to people interested in any type of cancer, but breast cancer was the primary focus of the day. Two students gave presentations on their studies and research.
Jack Crowley presented “Reading the Human Blueprint,” a talk on the history of DNA research. DNA consists of four building blocks; A (adenine), C (cytosine), G (guanine) and T (thymine). In 2003, scientists sequenced the entire human genome. This was an enormous accomplishment that took many years to complete, since the human genome sequence is more than three billion letters long. The double helix structure of DNA contains the instructions for assembling proteins that are responsible for all the biochemical processes in the body. For example, one set of DNA instructions would ultimately synthetize proteins to build the enzyme used to digest, break down, and extract nutrients from your last meal. Crowley also briefly covered the liquid biopsy, a blood test, as a less invasive method of cancer screening and detection for the future; it is not yet ready for “prime time.”
Garrett Beeghly spoke on “The Tumor Microenvironment” (TME), the environment around the tumor which includes blood vessels, cells, and molecules. While most research is focused on molecular diversity of tumor cells, the TME is highly complex and plays an important role in tumor progression and metastasis. It can allow cancer cells to become invasive and sometimes, in a complicated and multistep process, to travel to distant locations in the body.
A Q&A session with Dr. Claudia Fischbach, the Director of Cornell’s Physical Sciences Oncology Center, and Dr. Robert Weiss followed the presentations.
Afterward, our group visited some of Cornell’s research laboratories, which I especially enjoyed. In one of the labs, we had some hands-on experience. One of us placed healthy bone cells and bone cells and post-chemo bone cells on glass slides and we viewed them under the microscope. The chemo cells appeared enlarged when compared to the healthy cells. Then Shola, one of the students, showed us cancer cells from a triple negative breast cancer donor interacting with bone cells after chemotherapy with doxorubicin. The cells had lost their distinctive margins and instead appeared clustered together.
The Cornell Community Cancer Partnership provides researchers-in-training with opportunities to interact with members of the survivor community, whose lives can be directly impacted by their work. We are grateful to have participated in their 2022 Cancer Research Education Day.