It’s early September. The sun is still warm and shining as a room begins to fill up in Weill Hall on Cornell University’s campus. This isn’t a lecture or discussion section. The crowd in this room isn’t composed primarily of students. Instead, two different groups of individuals that might never otherwise interact are sitting side by side—in conversation. These are cancer researchers studying the disease and cancer patients and survivors.
The occasion is the inaugural Cancer Research Education Day, and it provides an opportunity not only for cancer patients to learn more about the disease, but also for cancer researchers to learn more about the individuals affected by it.
Cancer Researchers, Cancer Patients—Educating Each Other
This event is unique to Cornell, made possible through the Cornell Cancer Partnership, which is a collaboration between university researchers and the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes. This partnership was started in 2012 and is now coordinated by Robert S. Weiss, Biomedical Sciences, and Bob Riter, Cornell Physical Sciences Oncology Center. Through this program, scientists can leave their labs in order to talk to those directly affected by their research.
Garrett Beeghly, a second-year PhD student in Claudia Fischbach-Teschl’s lab, Biomedical Engineering, is among those researchers interacting with the patients. He says, “The Education Day and other events throughout the year remind us what we’re working toward. You can feel so isolated from the problem when you’re working in the lab with cells. Being able to see the perspectives of cancer patients themselves is really valuable.”
The cancer patients can, in turn, learn what work is being done in cancer research in terms that they understand. When Beeghly gives a talk about his research on the tumor microenvironment, he is speaking to people as people, not as numbers or test cases or Petri dishes. He discusses cancer concepts in clear language. “People used to study cancer in isolation. But if we think of cancer cells as seeds, then we also have to consider the soil that supports their growth. Our lab studies this soil, or the area immediately surrounding a tumor, known as the microenvironment.”
Obesity and Breast Cancer, The Research
He lays out his research question with minimal frills: “We know that obese women are more likely to develop breast cancer than lean women. And we know that their tumors will be more aggressive. But why?”
“It’s a humbling experience to think about your research as something that might someday impact actual patients, instead of just contributing to an abstract body of knowledge.”
His work primarily concerns adipocytes in breast tissue— “Those are fat cells,” he quickly explains—how they differ between lean and obese women and how those differences might contribute to a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Beeghly explains that obese individuals typically have enlarged fat cells that secrete inflammatory factors and lead to swelling. This swelling makes the microenvironment more hypoxic, or oxygen depleted, than it would be in lean individuals. Without oxygen, some of these adipocytes die, sparking an immune response that leads to further inflammation and the formation of fibrous tissue. This tissue is much stiffer than normal breast tissue.
“From previous studies, we know that microenvironments with stiffer tissue tend to support cancer growth. And we know that individuals with cancer can feel tough lumps in their breasts due to the formation of fibrous tissue as tumors grow. So, you can imagine that microenvironments that already contain stiffer tissue are more conducive to tumor formation and growth than environments where the tissue is softer and healthier, which is what you see in leaner individuals.”
Understanding how certain microenvironments develop in response to cancer risk factors, like smoking or obesity, may one day allow researchers to reverse those environments back to a healthier state. This approach aims to mitigate changes to the soil that would otherwise support the growth of cancer seeds. And Beeghly has the privilege of working with patients every step of the way.
Beyond Laboratory Research
Through the Cornell Cancer Partnership, Beeghly can interact with these patients on a regular basis. Beyond speaking at events like the Education Day, he sat down every week during the spring of 2019 with scientists and patients alike to discuss contemporary issues in cancer. “We’re a resource for the patients,” he says, and in return, he is able to practice his science communication skills and gain new perspectives from members of the cancer community.
Beyond the Cornell Cancer Partnership, another aspect of the Biomedical Engineering Program that drew Beeghly to the department was the Clinical Immersion Term. The summer following the first year of his PhD program, he spent two months at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, gaining exposure to how cancer is treated in the clinic and operating room. “I was able to see surgeries firsthand. I could sit in on meetings that discussed topics I would never come across as a researcher. In research, there is a lot of pressure to get a high-impact paper or come out with impressive results. At Weill, I started to think more about the ways my research could make a tangible impact on patients. In a clinical setting, reliable and reproducible data is so much more important than the shocking studies that academics love to pursue.”
Furthermore, the Fischbach-Teschl lab uses tissue samples from actual patients at Weill Cornell Medicine to carry out its research. Everything that Beeghly works on has a direct tie back to the patients he is ultimately aiming to help. “It’s a humbling experience to think about your research as something that might someday impact actual patients, instead of just contributing to an abstract body of knowledge.”
One day, Beeghly hopes that we will be able to see cancer patients as people and not diagnoses—that their disease will become only a part of their identity. That hope is what led him to cancer research, and through his experiences with patients so far, he has found that perhaps it is not so unreasonable to continue hoping.