Now’s the right time and place for cancer researchers at FAU. The university’s collaboration with Memorial Cancer Institute (MCI) as a Florida Department of Health Cancer Center of Excellence (CCE) will initiate new areas of research at the university, from basic to clinical. Some research is already underway, such as unlocking the biology of breast cancer metastasis to the bone, developing new models of pancreatic cancer, and testing the efficacy of lung cancer drugs.
MCI, part of the Memorial Healthcare System (MHS), is one of the largest cancer centers in Florida, treating more than 4,300 new cancer patients a year — a statistic that will take on new meaning with the designation of CCE and partnership with FAU.
“The Florida Department of Health Cancer Center of Excellence designation has enabled us to elevate our cancer program from a large community system to an excellent academic center,” said Luis Raez, MD, medical director and chief scientific officer, MCI. “Our partnership with FAU will enhance translational cancer research, providing even more diagnostic and therapeutic options to our patients.” Raez will co-direct the MCIFAU CCE with Gregg Fields, Ph.D., executive director of FAU’s Institute for Human Health and Disease Intervention.
MCIFAU, as the partnership is called, has two additional member institutions: The Scripps Research Institute and Gift of Life Marrow Registry, whose focus is blood cancer.
The breadth of the four institutions’ combined expertise enables MCIFAU CCE to span the dynamics of the cancer universe, from research to health care delivery. “Our collaboration covers a broad range of areas, taking you from very basic through applied research while integrating the patients in terms of their knowledge of cancer and treatments,” Fields said, indicating that research areas will be determined largely by the patient population and focus of treatment at MCI.
Projects are already underway. FAU, MCI, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York are collaborating to expand CSHL’s collection of pancreatic cancer organoids — the most extensive in the world, according to Fields. CSHL was having trouble obtaining tissue samples from diverse patient populations, and they approached FAU for help. FAU contacted MCI’s pancreatic cancer surgeon, who agreed to send newly removed tumors to FAU’s Boca campus, where the tumors are preserved and categorized, then sent off to CSHL.
Another project is currently making headway in Fields’ lab, where researchers are investigating the biomolecule that catalyzes breast and multiple myeloma tumors to form cells that degrade the bone and allow the tumor to spread there.
They’ve been able to show that inhibiting that biomolecule slows the process down. To that end, they’re working on developing better inhibitors. MCI is collaborating with FAU on starting a repository of breast cancer biospecimens obtained from patients at MCI; the specimens will be used to further test the efficacy of the compounds developed in Fields’ lab.
The expanded field for cancer research is open to members of the FAU community at every level, from undergraduate to directors of the university’s other research institutes. A number of undergraduates are already hard at work on both the pancreatic cancer and breast cancer metastasis projects, with the latter effort also engaging postdocs. “We have all types of talents on these projects, and we try to engage people on all levels,” Fields said.
Fields is looking at next steps too, such as working with drug companies to conduct phase I and II clinical trials in addition to Phase III trials already being conducted at MCI; tackling glioblastomas with a team from FAU’s Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute, Scripps and possibly the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience; and expanding FAU programs and degrees, such as medical physics, where novel applications of radiotherapy are applied.
“The Florida Department of Health’s designation of MCIFAU as a CCE is not only a tremendous honor but a recognition of the research talent and dedicated patient care that the members of the center offer,” Fields said. “We look forward to making great strides in the areas of cancer diagnosis and treatment, development of personalized medicine approaches, and public outreach that will eventually become synonymous with MCIFAU CCE.” ⬥