“Think Pink” event brings advances in breast cancer research to light, shares personal connection with Felicia Knaul

Zeta Tau Alpha sorority will host the Think Pink Cobb Fountain Lighting on Monday, Oct. 5 in observance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. University of Miami President Julio Frenk will be in attendance alongside UM First Lady Felicia Knaul to watch the typically white fountain be illuminated in pink.

Knaul is not only a full-time professor at the Miller School of Medicine and director of the Miami Institute for the Americas, but she is also a breast cancer survivor and brings her personal experience with cancer to the administrative level.

UM also has the Braman Family Breast Cancer Institute at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center on the medical campus. Dr. Joyce M. Slingerland is the director of the institute and has worked as an oncologist since 1992.

There are breast cancer research projects being conducted in nearly all of the programs at Sylvester, according to Slingerland. Slingerland is working on a tumor biology program, investigating how the microenvironment interacts with breast cancer and affects its growth.

Dr. Marc E. Lippman, deputy director of Sylvester, is studying the links between the immune system, depression and breast cancer. Other researchers are investigating cells that suppress anti-tumor immunity and breast cancer stem cells that instigate tumor growth to find ways to specifically target those cells and decrease toxicity in patients.

“There is a lot of very exciting research in breast cancer,” Slingerland said.

The recent development of new ways to grow live breast cancer cells directly from patient tumors, for example, enables researchers to test the response of a tumor to certain drugs to identify “molecular pathways” that make it uniquely susceptible. Before the development of new growing techniques, researchers had to use lab-grown cells.

“All academic breast centers are anxious to improve the quality of patient care and improve survival rates,” Slingerland said. “One thing particularly is … improving diagnosis in underserved communities.”

For example, Sylvester is conducting research to understand why women in the Caribbean get cancer at an early age and what the genetic connections are to breast cancer. This research is similar to work Knaul has done in Latin America. In 2008, she founded a non-profit agency in Mexico that promotes research, advocacy, awareness and early detection.

To sustain high levels of research and treatment, Sylvester has recruited three new clinical trialists to test new treatments on patients and review outcomes. The medical oncology recruits run medical trials of new therapies and will be able to host patients instead of needing to be at the medical campus, Slingerland said.

In a racially and ethnically diverse community, Sylvester and the Braman Institute’s work is statistically necessary. Non-Hispanic white women and black women are the most likely to have breast cancer followed by Hispanic women, according to the American Cancer Society.

The risk of breast cancer in women increases significantly after the age of 50. However, people in their 40s account for most of the deaths from breast cancer, according to Slingerland. Despite these statistics, she said the importance of taking preventative measures from a young age can not be underemphasized.

“Know your family history. Exercise regularly,” she said. “The importance of exercise as a preventative [measure] … is so important. There is very good data showing that three hours of aerobic exercise per week can reduce breast cancer reoccurrence.”

Weight gain – specifically between the ages of 19 and 50 – increases risk factors for the development of breast cancer, Slingerland said. In addition, the risk of breast cancer increases in a linear relationship to the amount of pounds gained in post-menopausal women.

Sylvester has centers on the medical campus, in Kendall, Plantation, Deerfield and Hollywood. There is also a new breast clinic at the Plantation center.