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Mathematical oncology: Where math modeling meets cancer research

June 16, 2015 | by   
Russell Rockne, Ph.D.

Russell Rockne joins Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope to build the new Division of Mathematical Oncology.

Many oncologists, not to mention their patients, might think that there’s no place for mathematical analysis in the treatment of cancer. They might think that all treatment decisions are based on unique factors affecting individual patients, with no connection to other patients and their treatment regimens. Russell Rockne, Ph.D., is determined to change that misconception.

Rockne is a mathematical oncologist, which means he uses mathematics as the means of discovery in cancer research.

In addition to investigating questions of cancer biology, Rockne uses outcomes data from large groups of patients to create predictive mathematical models, or algorithms, in the hope of generating effective stand-alone or combination therapies for individual patients. The algorithms loaded with clinical data essentially create a more precise treatment map for individuals experiencing similar cancers.

He joins City of Hope as an assistant professor in the Department of Research Information Sciences, bringing with him a background in both science and art. Formerly, a postdoctoral researcher in mathematical oncology at Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Rockne received his doctorate in mathematical biology, and masters in applied mathematics from the University of Washington, Seattle, and his bachelor’s in mathematics and fine art from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

In this interview, he explains the potential for a mathematical oncologist to – if not change the world – at least improve cancer treatment.

» Continue Reading

Book excerpt: ‘Bald, Fat & Crazy: How I Beat Cancer While Pregnant’

June 15, 2015 | by   

Within three days in 2007, Stephanie Hosford, then 37, learned that she was pregnant with her long-awaited second child – and that she had triple-negative breast cancer. Soon afterward, Hosford discovered that she and her husband, Grant, had been approved to adopt a little girl from China. 

"Bald, Fat & Crazy," by former City of Hope patient Stephanie Hosford

“Bald, Fat & Crazy: How I Beat Cancer While Pregnant With One Daughter and Adopting Another,” by former City of Hope breast cancer patient Stephanie Hosford, lands in bookstores June 15, 2015.

After encountering many physicians who advised them to terminate the pregnancy, the Hosfords found doctors at City of Hope who were confident they could successfully treat Stephanie without harming the baby. 

The Hosfords proceeded with both plans to expand their family, even while Hosford herself was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. In a previous Breakthroughs post, Hosford shared some advice with other patients, based on what she learned from her treatment experience.

Now Hosford has written a book about that experience, titled “Bald, Fat & Crazy: How I Beat Cancer While Pregnant With One Daughter and Adopting Another.” 

Here, Hosford shares an excerpt from her new book.

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CHAPTER 14

“Livin’ on the Edge” — Aerosmith
I need a wig.  An exceptionally fantastic wig, that doesn’t look at all like a wig.  I don’t know if anything like that exists, especially in my non-pop star price range, but it’s time to get serious.  I’m running out of time if I want to be prepared before chemo begins next week.

A couple of days later, Mom, Jenn and I pull into the tiny parking lot in the back of BigWigs, a small wig shop in Hollywood.  We wander up and down the aisles, studying the mannequin heads that look back at us with frozen faces.

“How long should I go?”  I ask Jenn, sounding stoic as I try to hold in my emotions. » Continue Reading

Obesity and breast cancer: The risk is real. Now we must help reduce it

June 14, 2015 | by   

That’s not an echo you hear, it’s another study linking weight to breast cancer risk. It’s also another reason to improve the health of our overall community.

Obesity and breast cancer risk

Obesity and breast cancer risk: The link is real. Now we must reduce the risk.

In a report published online June 11 in the journal JAMA Oncology, researchers have concluded that women who are both obese and postmenopausal face a substantially higher risk of invasive breast cancer than their normal-weight counterparts.

They based their findings on data from more than 67,000 postmenopausal participants in the Women’s Health Initiative, which measured height, weight, frequency of mammograms and incidence of breast cancer.

The risk of invasive breast cancer was greatest for women with a body mass index greater than 35, the researchers found; they had a 58 percent higher risk than normal-weight women. A normal body mass index for women is considered to be 25. If you’re wondering what a “greater than 35 BMI” looks like, the BMI calculator from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute calculates that a woman who is 5’6″ and weighs 220 pounds would have a BMI of 35.5. » Continue Reading

Pediatric picnic helps young patients ‘feel normal for a day’

June 13, 2015 | by   

Cancer and other life-threatening illnesses can be overwhelming experiences for adults. For children, who lack the life experience and context to put their diagnosis in perspective, the treatment and follow-up can be especially isolating. City of Hope’s youngest patients recently got a chance to overcome that isolation.

annual pediatric picnic at City of Hope

Six-year-old Samantha Urias and her family make a stop at the photo booth during City of Hope’s annual pediatric picnic.

More than 1,700 guests — City of Hope’s pediatric patients and survivors, plus their families — gathered on City of Hope’s Duarte campus for a special celebration of life, complete with kids, adults, doctors and nurses, all of whom understand the impact of treatment for cancer and other diseases.

The “Pacific Paradise”-themed pediatric picnic featured carnival-style games, comic artists, a face-painting booth, themed play zones, performances, and special appearances by cast members from Disney Channel’s comedy series “K.C. Undercover” and “Girl Meets World.” Festivities even included a “City of Hope’s Got Talent” variety show featuring pediatric cancer survivors.

Most important, the picnic gave patients and their families the chance to have a good time with other patients and families who had experienced, or were still experiencing, the treatment journey. It also gave patients a chance to connect with their doctors, nurses and other health care providers in a nonclinical environment. » Continue Reading

Explained: Breast cancer treatment options of today – and tomorrow

June 12, 2015 | by   

When explaining breast cancer treatment options, breast cancer specialists typically discuss the best therapies currently available, working with their patients to create the most effective treatment regimens. Recently, however, City of Hope specialists – in oncology, surgery and immunology – came together to discuss not only the best treatments of today, but also the most-promising treatments of tomorrow, explaining to current patients how very different therapeutic options could look in the not-too-distant future.

breast cancer treatment options

Breast cancer treatment options are improving. City of Hope physicians recently offered some breast cancer patients at City of Hope a primer on the best treatment options of today, and those of tomorrow.

Leading the session was James Waisman, M.D., clinical professor at City of Hope, a specialist not only in breast cancer oncology, but in connecting with his patients. Waisman understands just how much patients want to know about breast cancer treatment and where it’s going. On Sunday, June 7, Waisman hosted what he calls a patient research update, a primer specifically for patients about the latest avenues in breast cancer research.

With him were Yuman Fong, M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery, and Peter P. Lee, M.D.,  the Billy and Audrey L. Wilder Professor in Cancer Immunotherapeutics and chair of the Department of Cancer Immunotherapeutics and Tumor Immunology.

“We wanted to give patients the most current up-to-date vision about the direction of breast cancer treatment, with the goal to fundamentally shift the way patients with advanced breast cancer are treated,” Waisman said. The vision? “Much less toxicity and much better outcomes.” » Continue Reading

Slice of Lime: Patient’s daughter is making a difference in other lives

June 11, 2015 | by   
Slice of Lime

The concept for Slice of Lime was inspired by lymphoma patient Dave Sobel’s avid love of golf. Thus was born his daughter’s idea for an annual fundraising golf tournament. Now that tournament is helping hematology patients in Simi Valley, California. From left: Eddie Perez, Josh Isbell, Jayson Jones and Ted Barnes.  (Photo courtesy Lauren Miller)

Dave Sobel’s philosophy had always been about living life to the fullest. He loved golfing, listening to rock music and tropical relaxation. As his daughter, Lauren Miller, recalled: “His dream was to retire in the Caribbean and spend his days running a boat, a lime wedge in his tropical drink.”

Sadly, Sobel’s dream never came to fruition. In 2010, at the age of 54, his life was cut short by angioimmunoblastic T cell lymphoma, a very rare and aggressive cancer.

In honor of her father’s memory,  Miller , a legal secretary, created the Slice of Lime Foundation, named after her father’s retirement dream, as well as the lime green cancer ribbon for lymphoma. Since 2010, the charity has raised more than  $35,000 for blood cancer research and treatment.

Recently, to mark Slice of Lime’s fifth anniversary, Miller resolved to make a direct impact on the Simi Valley community, where her father and mother, Anita, had raised her and her siblings, and where her mother still resides today. “I wanted to do something special for Simi Valley residents,” Miller said.  After some initial research, she pledged $25,000 for City of Hope’s new community clinic in Simi Valley, to be raised by Slice of Lime.

This donation is the first to be specifically designated to the Simi Valley clinic. » Continue Reading

Healthy Living grants will boost health of San Gabriel Valley residents

June 10, 2015 | by   
Healthy lifestyle

Grants will be given to organizations that help San Gabriel Valley residents eat right, exercise and make other lifestyle choices that can reduce their risks of cancer and diabetes.

Small is beautiful.

That’s the idea behind City of Hope’s Healthy Living Community Grant Program, according to Nancy Clifton-Hawkins, M.P.H., M.C.H.E.S, community benefit manager at City of Hope.

As part of a pilot project designed to improve the overall health of its home community, City of Hope will give about $30,000 in grants to organizations that help San Gabriel Valley residents eat right, exercise and make other lifestyle choices that can reduce their risks of cancer and diabetes. “Most likely, this means six awards of $5,000 each,” Clifton-Hawkins said. “We recognize this may not seem like a lot of money. But, in this case, a little can go a long way.”

The goal is to provide what she called “sparks” to start new projects and improve existing ones “through creativity and passion” and “by leveraging resources such as funding and networking.”

“We are going to be able to address some of the issues around health, health care and access that are not in our wheelhouse,” Clifton-Hawkins said, referring to the institution’s core missions of lifesaving patient-focused cancer care and biomedical research. “There are wonderful nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations that do this stuff every day. The point is to help connect the dots, invest in what they do and encourage them to take it to the next level.” » Continue Reading

Unsatisfied with today’s therapies, brain tumor scientists make new ones

June 9, 2015 | by   

Clinicians and surgeons at City of Hope aren’t satisfied with current treatments for brain tumors, nor are they satisfied with focusing on only one avenue of research. Instead, they’re exploring many potential – and promising – options to help people with cancer in the brain.

Those options are desperately needed. According to the American Cancer Society, 22,850 malignant tumors of the brain or spinal cord will be diagnosed this year, and 15,320 people will die.

brain tumor program research

Physicians and researchers in City of Hope’s Brain Tumor Program aren’t satisfied with the current treatment options for patients. So they’re creating new ones.

“The chance that a person will develop a malignant tumor of the brain or spine in one’s lifetime is less than 1 percent, but the survival rates for malignant gliomas, the type of brain tumor that is the focus of research at City of Hope, is poor,” said Behnam Badie, M.D., chief of neurosurgery and director of the Brain Tumor Program at City of Hope. In fact, the five-year survival rate for people age 45 to 64 is 6 percent; it’s 4 percent for those age 55 to 64.

Glioblastoma is the most common type of primary brain tumor in adults (with “primary” meaning that it originated in the brain) and the most aggressive. Surgery is the treatment of choice, because radiation has its limits, and most chemotherapy drugs can’t cross the blood-brain barrier. But surgery is not a perfect option. Removing all the tumor cells is virtually impossible due to the invasive nature of glioblastoma, and tumor recurrence is the norm. Most people live only 1.5 years after diagnosis.

Badie hopes that those numbers won’t be always be so grim. Here, he provides an overview of some of City of Hope’s most promising new treatments for brain tumors. » Continue Reading

Graduate school commencement launches tomorrow’s scientific leaders

June 8, 2015 | by   
graduate school commencement

Members of the 2015 graduating class from the Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences pose with their mentors and teachers.

Updated June 15, 2015.

As a teenager living in Duarte, California, James Finlay organized 50 to 60 donors for a blood drive to benefit City of Hope, meeting his need for a community-service project on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout.

“That was my first major interaction with City of Hope,” he said. “I had very little sense of the research that goes on here.”

Finlay never imagined that two decades later he would be a student with not only an inside view of – but also a role in – the investigations conducted at City of Hope’s Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences. The renowned program trains a handful of select graduate students in the fields of chemical, molecular and cellular biology, as well as bioinformatics and genetics.

At 4 p.m. on Friday, June 12, Finlay was one of 12 graduate students who received Doctor of Philosophy degrees at the school’s 17th commencement ceremony, held in the Rose Garden on City of Hope’s main campus. Celebrating along with the graduates and their families were leaders of the school, City of Hope and the scientific community.

The keynote address was delivered by Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology and the founding director of the Beckman Institute at the California Institute of Technology. Gray is acclaimed for his research on a wide range of fundamental problems in inorganic chemistry, biochemistry and biophysics. » Continue Reading

The star of annual ASCO meeting? The human immune system

June 7, 2015 | by   

Of the hundreds of important developments in cancer research and care showcased at one of the world’s largest medical meetings, featuring scores of studies about drugs, chemotherapy and radiation, the most exciting tool showcased for fighting cancer was the human immune system.

ASCO 2015 and research

The human immune system, in all its often problematic glory, was the star of the recent meeting of the nation’s oncologists.

For blood cancers and solid tumors alike, studies at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting in Chicago showcased medicines adept at unleashing the immune system to attack cancers, including colon cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer. One study presented at the meeting compared standard chemotherapy with a drug called nivolumab, a “check-point inhibitor” that works by disrupting the signaling system used by cancer to avoid detection by the immune system.

“Patients in the trial who took nivolumab had nearly double the survival rate of patients treated with chemotherapy,” said Karen Reckamp, M.D., M.S., co-director of the Lung Cancer and Thoracic Oncology Program at City of Hope. Reckamp was an author of the study, which was also published in the New England Journal of Medicine. “This provides further evidence that immunotherapy is a treatment option for lung cancer.” » Continue Reading