As co-founders of Stand Up To Cancer, we are well accustomed to expressing concern for those who are diagnosed with cancer. But when it happens to one of us, it gets very personal.
We received the recent news of Katie Couric’s breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment first with concern, then with hope, and finally gratitude. Concern that yet again, one of our colleagues and Stand Up To Cancer co-founders must contend with a disease that we each have committed to defeat through a combination of cutting-edge research and wide popular support.
When we learned that Katie’s cancer was detected early and is of a type that is readily treatable, that concern turned to hope.
And finally, gratitude. For the outstanding care she is fortunate to receive, for the optimistic prognosis her doctors offered, and for the effective treatments now available—some the product of research funded by Stand Up To Cancer—that today enable so many women to survive a breast cancer diagnosis.
Katie Couric is not only a driving force behind this organization. She is one of the most outspoken and persuasive advocates for preventive screening. When she aired her colonoscopy on the Today Show in 2000, the number of people getting the procedure jumped by 20 percent. We’re confident that her sharing the story of her breast cancer diagnosis will have a similar effect.
Thank you to all those who have contacted Stand Up To Cancer with good wishes for Katie. But please don’t stop there. If you’re overdue for a mammogram, schedule one now. Encourage those you care about to get screened. And if you’re inclined to support SU2C’s work to bring innovative treatments to cancer patients as quickly as possible, consider donating.
Everyone in the Stand Up To Cancer community joins in wishing our friend and colleague Katie Couric well. We thank her for her honesty and candor in sharing her personal cancer journey. Most of all, we’re grateful to all those who support our mission to turn every cancer patient into a long-term survivor.
– Sherry Lansing, Kathleen Lobb, Lisa Paulsen, Rusty Robertson, Sue Schwartz, Pamela Oas Williams, Ellen Ziffren
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused incomprehensible suffering and loss of life in the last few years. But if there’s a silver lining in this ongoing tragedy, it may be how the rapid discovery and implementation of the highly effective COVID-19 vaccine is fueling the momentum and continued research of similar personalized Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, including those for fighting cancer.
Consider the ground-breaking work of Vinod Balachandran and Benjamin Greenbaum, co-leaders of the SU2C–Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Convergence Research Team, whose initial research actually pre-dates the pandemic. They are now running the first clinical trial of a personalized mRNA vaccine for pancreatic cancer patients.
Ironically, the duo had seemingly little in common at first: Balachandran was a general surgery resident at New-York Presbyterian Hospital, honing his surgical skills and learning the limits of modern medicine in saving patients’ lives. Greenbaum had a graduate degree in physics and had published papers on chaos and quantum mechanics while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
But a fateful connection brought them together. The pair met when Greenbaum won a 2016 SU2C Sharp Award to study cancer immunotherapy with one of Balachandran’s colleagues at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. They credit much of their fruitful collaboration to SU2C.
“Stand Up goes a long way to try to facilitate and forge these collaborations between people that span different disciplines when they can recognize there’s a common goal,” says Balachandran. “I think they did a fantastic job here recognizing that, even though we were approaching it from different angles, our missions were aligned; we both wanted to make cancer vaccines.”
The researchers teamed up in 2017 to study what distinguishes long-term survivors of pancreatic cancer – the 9 percent who live more than 5 years after diagnosis—from other patients. They discovered that, up to 12 years after recovering from cancer, survivors had specialized immune cells that recognized cancer proteins called neoantigens.
A vaccine, Balachandran and Greenbaum thought, might be able to coax the immune systems of all pancreatic cancer patients to recognize these neoantigens. The challenge: not all patients’ tumors have the same neoantigens.
“Designing a vaccine is, at some levels, more challenging in cancers than in viruses,” says Greenbaum. “Tumors are diverse between patients and have evolved to not only avoid the immune system but suppress it.”
Facing up to these challenges, the research team started designing a system in which they could customize an mRNA vaccine for pancreatic cancer patients based on the combination of neoantigens present in each patient’s tumor. Greenbaum’s analytical approach coupled with Balachandran’s immunological and clinical knowledge helped them determine the most effective way to create this kind of personalized vaccine.
In December 2019, their team launched a phase I clinical trial to test mRNA vaccines in pancreatic cancer – a full year before mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 mRNA vaccines became available.
In the two years since, both Balachandran and Greenbaum say that the promise of the clinical trial, and the intellectually rich collaborations borne of their SU2C team, helped keep them engaged in their work through the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, BioNTech—the same German company that was producing the pancreatic cancer vaccine in collaboration with Memorial Sloan Kettering—teamed up with Pfizer on their COVID-19 mRNA vaccine. The first results on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were exciting not only for the promise of managing COVID-19, but for informing the development and safety of other mRNA vaccines, the researchers say.
“I think people have more confidence in the platform because of what’s happened with COVID,” says Greenbaum.
“It was not only exciting for us, but for our patients to see data on how effective other mRNA vaccines could be,” agrees Balachandran.
Stand Up To Cancer employee, Frederick Johnson, shares his story, his experience undergoing a routine colonoscopy in the midst of COVID-19, and the importance of recommended screenings for this disease.
Colorectal cancer, which occurs in the colon or rectum, is the second most common cause of cancer death in the US in men and women combined. But it doesn’t have to be. With regular screening, colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable cancers and is beatable in 90% of cases when caught early.
As an employee at Stand Up To Cancer for over a decade, I decided to share my own colonoscopy experience to help encourage others to talk to their doctors about which colorectal cancer screening may be right for them.
In 2008, my dad unfortunately passed away from colorectal cancer. Due to my family history of the disease, my doctor recommended I have my first colonoscopy at the age of 40. Following that screening, I was advised to get another colonoscopy in 10 years. As I approach my 50th birthday, it was important for me to talk with my doctor about screening options, especially with the pandemic delaying so many screenings in 2020.
There are several effective tests available – from a colonoscopy done at a medical facility to non-invasive tests that can be done from the comfort of your own home. For me, a colonoscopy was the right choice. And since this is my second, I know the process and procedure isn’t that bad, and it’s well worth it because it could help save your life.
While researching my options, I learned that colorectal cancer disproportionately impacts the Black community. Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to have colorectal cancer diagnosed at later stages due in part to differences in access to screening and health care. I also learned that most people with colorectal cancer have no family history of the disease.
With millions of people in the US not getting screened as recommended, and many people delaying routine appointments due to the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to know your screening options and reschedule missed tests. If you are 45 or older, talk to your medical provider about a screening test that is right for you.
If you’d like to learn more about my experience, you can follow my entire journey here.
I’m thankful to work for an organization focused on saving lives. And I’m proud to Stand Up To Cancer and get screened for my father, myself, and the future. Stand Up To Cancer for yourself and your loved ones by learning more about the benefits of colorectal cancer screening at StandUpToCancer.org/ColonCancer.
Frederick Johnson, BCPA
Recently we spoke with Andrew T. Chan, MD, MPH (@AndyChanMD), lead researcher for the COVID Symptom Study App and SU2C Gastric Cancer Interception Research Team Leader, about the importance of the influenza (flu) vaccine and its impact on patients, especially those that are immunocompromised, cancer survivors, and their loved ones.
What are your recommendations for immunocompromised patients in regards to protecting their health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as we move into flu season?
As we head into flu season, now more than ever, people must be vigilant about taking precautions to minimize their risk of acquiring of both the flu and COVID-19. This begins by practicing what we know works in virus prevention: washing your hands, avoiding large crowds, social distancing, wearing masks in public, staying away from others if you feel sick, and getting the flu vaccine if you are over six months old. These behaviors must continue because it will ultimately help protect you and others, especially those who may be immunocompromised, including patients and their families.
Why is getting the flu vaccine this year important for patients, survivors, and their loved ones?
All people living with cancer, especially immunocompromised patients, survivors, and their caregivers need to get the vaccine as soon as possible to help minimize their risk of getting the flu. It is equally essential for even individuals who are not in close contact with people living with cancer to get the vaccine now to help reduce the spread of flu in our communities.
When is the ideal time for people to get the flu vaccine?
While we don’t yet know when flu season will peak, and where the virus will be most prevalent, it’s best to get the vaccine right now since we don’t know exactly when the flu season will strike.Of course, over time the protection offered by the flu vaccine may wane, so it is worth talking to your doctor about what to do if the season persists longer than expected.
Are cancer patients and survivors more likely to get the flu than others?
Cancer patients and survivors with compromised immune systems are more likely to develop worsening symptoms, less able to effectively fight an infection, and more prone to develop complications after being infected. This is why everyone needs to get the flu vaccine this year and do everything they can to protect themselves and their community.
What are the key differences between COVID-19 and the flu?
This is an area we are studying through the COVID Symptom Study App. We know some symptoms are more specific to COVID-19 than the flu, such as the loss of taste and smell. On the other hand, flu symptoms seem to be more commonly associated with nasal congestion and a stuffy nose. However, there are some shared symptoms which may make it hard to tell them apart.
Understanding the key differences between the two viruses is something we hope to tease out over the next few weeks based on what communities are reporting, and the symptoms they are experiencing, to help distinguish the flu from COVID-19.
What should someone do if they think they might have COVID-19 or the flu?
It is likely that people may have symptoms that could be due to both infections. The good news is that we now have tests for both viruses, and the bottlenecks we faced in testing for COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic have somewhat improved.
If you believe you may have either the flu or COVID-19, we recommend isolating and getting in touch with your doctor about what steps to take regarding testing.
How can tracking COVID-19 using the COVID Symptom Study App help fight the pandemic this winter?
The COVID Symptom Study App captures symptoms of COVID-19 so we can identify hotspots of the virus. In the same way, our app can be utilized to track the flu and predict outbreaks as well. This is why it is so important for people, whether they have cancer or not, and whether they feel well or not, to log how they feel through the COVID Symptom Study App.
How close do you believe we are to having effective treatments for COVID-19 that will help reduce hospitalization and risk for immunocompromised patients?
I’m heartened by the progress currently being made in developing promising treatments for COVID-19 and the speed at which scientists are working to develop tests and therapeutics. Although researchers are working as fast as they can, we are also not taking short cuts, so it will take some patience before these come to fruition. I’m hopeful that more treatments will be available to reduce the risk of hospitalization within the next several months, but it is not easy to predict exactly when they will be ready.
Is there any evidence that mask-wearing, social distancing, and getting the flu vaccine may reduce the spread of the flu this year?
There is clear evidence that wearing a mask and washing your hands is an effective means of prevention for any respiratory virus. There is also evidence that getting the flu vaccine minimizes your risk for flu as well. In 2020, as a result of mask-wearing, social distancing, and the flu vaccine, we have seen remarkably low influenza rates in the Southern Hemisphere during their winter flu season, which occurs during our summer months. This is solid proof that these non-pharmacological interventions can make a difference in making our flu season much more manageable.
Now is the time to stand together, practice prevention, and get the flu vaccine. By doing so, we will minimize the risk of the flu for ourselves, our loved ones, our communities.
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Drs. Edith Perez, MD and Lori Pierce, MD discuss the importance of health equity, and the work SU2C and ASCO are doing to increase diversity in cancer research and treatment.
“Everyone has the right to be healthy and is entitled to high-quality care,” Dr. Lori Pierce, President of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), exclaims during SU2C’s most recent Facebook Live event discussing the importance of health equity. “Health equity is a simple concept, but it’s become complicated, and there are barriers that need to be addressed and eliminated.”
During the Facebook Live event, SU2C Health Equity Committee Chair, Dr. Edith Perez, and Dr. Pierce engage in an in-depth discussion on the importance of health equity, and SU2C and ASCO’s commitment to improving access to care and long-term survival rates for underrepresented populations.
Dr. Perez says that now more than ever, we must put words into action when it comes to health equity in both cancer research and treatment. For decades, patients of color have been at an increased risk for certain cancers and carry the highest mortality rates and shortest survival rates for most cancers. Yet, only 4% of clinical trial participants are Black, and 5% are Hispanic according to FDA data.
One way SU2C is committed to improving cancer treatment for underrepresented populations is by bringing together the brightest scientific minds from diverse fields through the new SU2C Health Equity Breakthrough Team. This team will be selected and receive funding in early 2021, and will focus on new approaches to address health disparities in cancer care and prevention, and help increase diversity in clinical trial participation. Additionally, SU2C continues to collaborate with organizations like ASCO, Black Women’s Health Imperative, and Friends of Cancer Research to build awareness about the importance of health equity and diverse clinical trial participation.
As SU2C and ASCO remain committed to prioritizing diversity and inclusion across research and awareness initiatives, we hope to continue these critical conversations to inspire action and ensure that all patients facing cancer benefit equally in both research and treatment.
Watch the Facebook Live discussion addressing health equity in cancer research here.