Deanna’s Discoveries: Three western New York researchers get grants from BCCR

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The discovery that leads to the eradication of breast cancer could be made by a scientist right here in western New York. And if so, it’s likely the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester helped fund it. Each year, the coalition gives thousands in grant money to three western New York researchers. And their work is groundbreaking.

Each grant recipient presented their work Tuesday morning to a room filled with cancer survivors. And this was an attentive audience, despite the fact that the science was academically opaque. Each researcher explained how their work seeks to understand cancer at its inception, how it lives and how it grows.

And for some of those researchers, the work is personal. That’s the case for Cornell Ph. D. candidate Nicole Sempertegui.

“There’s a lot of my family members that suffered from breast cancer, and that’s why I got into this type of research in the first place,” Sempertegui said. She received a $25.000 grant to research why 80 percent of metastatic breast cancer spreads to the bone.

Asked how the grant will help her continue her work, she said, “It helps it tremendously. Not only the reward money itself, but also the support from the community.”

That’s also the case for Emily Whitt, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester. She’s studying an especially aggressive form of breast cancer that I had, called “triple negative.”

“Triple negative breast cancer is in part deadly because there are no targeted therapies,” said Whitt. “But it’s also deadly because it’s much more likely to metastasize than other types of breast cancer.”

That’s why Cornell professor Anushka Dongre is studying triple negative breast cancer as well. She received a $50,000 grant to continue her research into the immune system’s role in the development of disease.

“The immune system is usually designed to protect your body against any sort of infections, but in study of cancer progression, the breast cancer cells are able to manipulate the immune cells so that it actually promotes cancer growth,” Dongre explained.

That is astounding. Our own immune systems actually help the cancer to grow. Her work aims to teach those immune cells to fight the cancer.

And among all cancer survivors in attendance there was a sense of gratitude. All were grateful that these extraordinary women have dedicated their careers to the eradication of this disease. And the three scientists will be back in Rochester in six months to tell us what they’ve gleaned from their research. That gives the Breast Cancer Coalition a chance to see their money at work. I’ll be following their progress as well.