I had the opportunity last week to tour the Burkard Lab for Breast Cancer Research at the UW Carbone Cancer Center. Dr. Mark Burkard is one of the oncologists there. In addition to seeing patients with breast cancer, his research interest is in targeted therapies, especially those directed at protein kinases. He also heads up the Outlier Study in addition to work in clinical trials. It’s his lab that I toured.
My working knowledge of cancer started when my mother was first diagnosed with primary breast cancer. I learned a lot more years later when hers became metastatic and with my initial diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer in 2012. A period of time exists between then and now where lots of information has blurred. Science never was my strongest subject. I’ll do my best to summarize what I understood from the evening’s tour. Beware of technical difficulties.
The lab tour was guided by graduate students and research team members through several stations in the lab much like learning stations would be set up in a classroom. The structure lent itself well to guiding a group of people through areas in smaller groups to provide a more personal experience. Snapshot descriptions of each station follow.
Cell Division Station
The first station was led by graduate student Roshan Xavier Norman. He explained how erroneous cell division can cause lagging chromosomes that form a micronucleus. This micronucleus doesn’t have all the material it’s supposed to have. It can lead to cancer if a cell doesn’t have the same nucleus material as the others. His work involves staining proteins in cells and looking at them through expansion microscopy. This enables him to see molecular structures at high resolution and see the difference between normal cells and abnormal cancer cells. He talked at length about chromosome segregation, spindle abnormalities, and differences in cells from mitosis that were damaged because of lagging chromosomes during DNA replication. It became very technical for me to understand, but the gist I took away was he was being successful in pinpointing these errors in cell division and there are applications to research.
Outliers Study Station
Rob Lera, PhD, is a research associate and has been with the Burkard Research Group since 2009. He talked about the Extreme Long Term Survivor Study. The goal of this study is to identify patterns that attribute to long term survival in metastatic breast cancer patients. This study is also known as the Outliers Study because despite the odds, there are metastatic breast cancer patients living well beyond the expected two to three years median survival rate when diagnosed. There are two survivors still going strong by surviving greater than forty years, one of whom was on the tour that night! I felt like I needed to go and rub up against her for luck. Fifty of the longest survivors since their original primary diagnosis have been surviving from 22-42 years.
Data on participants in this study are gathered through extensive paper/online questionnaires, phone interviews, saliva kits, and extracting tissue samples. Most participants are HR+ Her2 – but there is representation from all MBC subtypes. Then it is all analyzed for patterns.
Preliminary results can be found HERE.
It appears the only conclusion drawn so far is there is no apparent correlation between exercise and time living with cancer or metastatic breast cancer. Cancer is so individualized. My personal opinion is that the 720 participants in the study surely must have done things outside the medical box and thrown some of the medical advice out the window to still be around today. I need to think outliers didn’t get where they are from playing by all the rules. It sure would suck if there were no correlations at all and extreme long term survival amounts to pure luck.
I was discussing some of the possible factors determining survival with one of my friends on the tour who has a nursing background and we unscientifically agreed that if an individual thought something made a difference, then it made a difference. I happen to believe the daily exercise I do now makes a difference in my health. I exercise daily and get my 150 minutes each week, usually more. Feeling like I’m doing something positive in terms of my health matters to me. Belief is a powerful medicine. It is one of many attributes and patterns that can’t be measured through this study.
I filled out a preliminary survey for the Outliers Study and felt I provided lots of information on why I feel I’ve survived so far. I am one of the little lines on one of their charts. I haven’t survived long enough to be interesting enough for further study. Someday I will be.
Patient Derived Organoids
Rachel Sundstrom is a research specialist with a degree that’s focused on biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology. Her work involves analyzing patient derived organoids (PDOs). PDOs are cancer cells from patients with breast cancer tumors that are grown in a 3D model. They mimic the biological characteristics of the primary tumors. I think this is what she meant when she talked about organoid morphology and how she is working with different Taxol concentrations that cause cell death, trying to find the just right level for that to happen.
All this work is worthwhile. I spoke to another friend the day before this tour and she told me about experiments where cancer cells were taken from a patient’s body, grown in separate petri dishes, and then various chemotherapies and targeted therapies were tested out to see which treatments the cancer responded to best. I asked if this type of work was being done at Carbone. No, it isn’t. Well, I responded that’s the direction I felt research needed to take. She said some work similar to what I had asked about is being done at the colon cancer lab on campus headed by Dr. Dustin Deming. I have met Dr. Deming and heard him speak about his work with colon cancer treatments. He told me there are some crossovers that may be applicable to breast cancer. Anyway, I made it clear I wanted that kind of work to happen at this lab. Why wasn’t it being done?
My response: Yes, research is expensive. People die. That has a cost, too.
I hope my comments were heard and get discussed further elsewhere in the context of future projects being planned. I know a handful of people on the tour that evening had metastatic breast cancer. We were there because of our health and want to live. We support research being done. We want to be outliers. I was not there just to learn and pat them on the back. I want to drive change.
It seemed like the perfect opportunity to communicate, “Is this being done? I would like this to happen here. When will it happen?”
I felt a little like it was the elephant in the room.
I wondered if I was the only one seeing it.
Immune Response Station
Yang Hu presented his graduate work on the effects of Taxol on activating an immune response to cancer cells. T cells are a type of white blood cell that are important to the immune system. They are important because they can adapt and tailor a response to specific pathogens. These cells are often likened to soldiers that target and destroy bad cells. The challenge is to get these T cells near enough to the cancer cells in order to kill them off. His work is showing that paclitaxel/Taxol can stimulate T cell immune responses for some people. His sample size is small, however, there may be a small pattern emerging where triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) patients have responded more to this type of treatment than other breast cancer subtypes.
I would like to know what goes into the process of determining which projects get accepted and researched. The lab was interesting to see. In my mind I pictured it as being very spacious and sterile, filled with high tech equipment, cold, and lots of white. People would walk around wearing lab coats, goggles, and gloves. That’s how TV and movies depict research labs. It wasn’t at all like those images. Every nook and cranny was used. It was crowded with color. I was reminded of how I used space in my old classroom.
I am grateful that these researchers are using their time and talents to dedicate their lives to breast cancer research. Teaching hospitals often have tours of research facilities as it’s one way to promote their work and thank donors who’ve helped make that work possible. My suggestion is it’s well worth your time to find one to tour, learn about what’s being researched, and ask the questions that matter to you. Do some research!