This was another exciting year for the University of Colorado Cancer Center, and we were able to share more than 80 stories spotlighting our members and their research. We also shared the cancer journeys of some of our patients.
Several high-profile cancer deaths called attention to specific types of cancer, while the COVID-19 pandemic raised questions about vaccine side effects and underscored our research on RNA biology.
Here are the top stories of 2021 for the CU Cancer Center:
Comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Norm MacDonald died September 14, after what his brother, Neil MacDonald, described as a nine-year battle with acute leukemia. Norm MacDonald, known for his intelligence and sarcastic wit, was 61.
Leukemia is a blood cancer that originates in the blood and bone marrow. It usually occurs when the body creates too many abnormal white blood cells and interferes with the bone marrow’s ability to make red blood cells and platelets, though some leukemias start in other kinds of blood cells.
The COVID-19 vaccines are beginning to significantly slow the spread of the virus, but the Pfizer and Moderna and vaccines are having an unforeseen consequence for breast cancer doctors. The vaccines often cause swelling in the armpit or underarm that can mimic the lumps associated with breast cancer, causing some women undue concern.
Medical oncologist and University of Colorado Cancer Center member Anosheh Afghahi, MD, has encountered the problem in her own practice; in the following discussion she explains what is happening and what providers are doing about it.
Actor Dustin Diamond, best known for playing the nerdy character Screech on teen sitcom “Saved By the Bell,” died February 1 at age 44. Diamond died just weeks after being diagnosed with stage 4 small cell carcinoma, a type of cancer that commonly occurs in the lungs but can also originate in the prostate or gastrointestinal tract.
University of Colorado Cancer Center member Erin Schenk, MD, PhD, says small cell carcinoma — a rare cancer that often spreads aggressively and has no associated screening procedure — is a reminder of how much work medical professionals have left to do in the fight against cancer.
Cancer doctors may soon have a new tool for treating melanoma and other types of cancer, thanks to work being done by researchers at the University of Colorado Cancer Center.
In a paper published in the journal PNAS in March, CU Cancer Center members Mayumi Fujita, MD, PhD, Angelo D’Alessandro, PhD, Morkos Henen, PhD, MS, Beat Vogeli, PhD, Eric Pietras, PhD, James DeGregori, PhD, Charles Dinarello, MD, and Carlo Marchetti, PhD, along with Isak Tengesdal, MS, a graduate student in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, detail their work on NLRP3, an intracellular complex that has been found to participate in melanoma-mediated inflammation, leading to tumor growth and progression. By inhibiting NLRP3, the researchers found, they can reduce inflammation and the resultant tumor expansion.
In a grim reminder of the toll COVID-19 can take even among those who are vaccinated against it, former Secretary of State Colin Powell died October 18 of complications from the virus. His family said Powell, who was 84, was fully vaccinated against the disease. Powell’s family said he also had multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells that suppresses the body’s immune response, which likely compounded the effects of the virus on his immune system.
We spoke with CU Cancer Center member Dan Sherbenou, MD, PhD, an associate professor of hematology in the University of Colorado School of Medicine, about the potential effects of COVID-19 on multiple myeloma patients and why all cancer patients should get booster shots to help their immune systems fight the virus.
One of the most difficult nights of Hank Baskett Sr.’s life was the night he told his wife he had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ll ever do in my life, to tell her that I probably had just been given a death sentence,” Hank says. “I sat right there in my living room and I said, ‘God’s got it. We’re going to make it through this.’”
That was 10 years ago, and Hank was true to his word. With the help of doctors at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, he has made it this far in his cancer journey.
Long before RNA and mRNA became important parts of the COVID-19 vaccine conversation, researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine were studying how RNA biology can improve diagnostics and therapeutics for a range of diseases.
The RNA Bioscience Initiative (RBI), which started in 2016 with $20 million in funding from the Dean’s Office at the CU School of Medicine, aims to engage in collaborative, multidisciplinary, cutting-edge RNA research; train the next generation of RNA researchers; develop a strong RNA-focused community; leverage existing local and regional strengths in RNA research; and establish academic-corporate partnerships to accelerate the translation of discoveries in basic RNA biology.
Actor Willie Garson was probably best known for his role as Stanford Blatch on “Sex and the City,” playing one of Carrie Bradshaw’s New York-savvy best friends. Garson, who died September 21 at age 57, has helped to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer, which he battled briefly before his death.
About 60,430 people in the United States will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. It accounts for only 3% of all cancers in the U.S. but 7% of all cancer deaths. In fact, it is the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. and by 2030 is predicted to be the second-leading cause.
Siri Lindley couldn’t swim. She had never learned how, and the idea of competing in a triathlon seemed completely out of the question.
“I couldn’t help but fall in love with the sport,” says Siri. “Something about it drew me in and I knew I had to start training.”
For eight years, Siri dedicated her life to training for the sport she loved. In 1992, at the age of 23, she completed her first triathlon event. Just four years later, in 1996, Siri competed in the International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Cup Races. But competing was not enough. Siri had a goal -- she wanted to be number one in the world.
A discovery by CU Cancer Center member Traci Lyons, PhD, is providing new hope for women with metastatic breast cancer.
Lyons, an associate professor in the University of Colorado School of Medicine, first came to the school in 1999 as a professional research assistant in the Department of Microbiology. She completed her doctoral studies with Steve Anderson, PhD, in the Department of Pathology in 2006, and continued as a postdoc fellow in the lab of CU Cancer Center member Virginia Borges, MD, a professor in medical oncology and leader of the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Translational Program. It was there that Lyons began her research on semaphorin 7a, a molecule that appears to drive metastasis of breast cancers. Her lab’s recent publication suggests this may be particularly important in estrogen receptor (ER) positive breast cancer. Cancer cells in ER-positive breast cancer have receptors that allow them to use the hormone estrogen to grow.