This year, lung cancer will account for an estimated 130,000 deaths in the United States – approximately 25% of all cancer deaths. Among those deaths, people who are Black will be disproportionately represented.
For Sharon Pine, PhD, racial and economic disparities in cancer diagnosis and care add an urgency to lung cancer research, one that has been a significant factor in her work for more than 15 years.
Pine will bring that experience and motivation to her new role as director of the Thoracic Oncology Research Initiative (TORI) at the University of Colorado (CU) Cancer Center. TORI was initiated in 2015 with the goal of advancing lung cancer research at the University of Colorado, building on a long history of collaborations spanning basic, translational, and clinical research.
“The reason why I chose to come to TORI is because it is such a great group of people with top-level expertise who are leaders in the field,” Pine says. “The CU Cancer Center has an exceptional reputation in thoracic oncology and it’s a center that I’ve looked up to throughout my career.”
James DeGregori, PhD, CU Cancer Center deputy director, notes that “Dr. Pine brings experience in and appreciation for multidisciplinary and collaborative lung cancer research. She recognizes that real progress in understanding, preventing, and treating lung cancers will require different perspectives, toolkits, and expertise.”
Pioneering discoveries in lung cancer biomarkers
Pine comes to the CU Cancer Center from the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, where she has been the center’s Assistant Director for Research in Community Outreach and Engagement, as well as an associate professor of medicine and pharmacology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University.
While completing her doctoral research in cancer pathology at New York Medical College, Pine began exploring multiple models to understand resistance to targeted therapies and immunotherapies. Her research at the National Cancer Institute and the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey led to several pioneering discoveries in biomarkers for lung cancer.
This research has included discoveries with two stem cell signaling pathways, Notch1 and SOX9, that are essential for normal lung development and are dysregulated in lung cancer. Through collaboration with a multidisciplinary team of scientists to fully define how these signaling pathways drive lung cancer onset and growth, Pine and her co-researchers have several reports demonstrating that inhibiting these pathways with targeted therapy increases the sensitivity of lung cancer cells to standard chemotherapy.
Pine’s research has also included building a tumor bank of patient-derived tissue grafts that more closely mirror the diversity and tumor microenvironment of human tumors than classical cancer cell lines. These grafts are thought to be a better model to assess the effectiveness of targeted therapies.
Studying disparities in lung cancer
A significant aspect of Pine’s lung cancer research has been studying the health disparities that contribute to lung cancer, especially among Black communities. These disparities may include socio-economic status, access to healthcare, geographic location, genetics, and work exposures, among others, although the precise mechanisms are unclear.
Her research showed that even after correcting for socioeconomic and other disparity factors, there are molecular features in the tumors that make them more aggressive in Black patients compared to White patients that might contribute to lung cancer health disparities. This research focuses on pathways involved in inflammation and interactions between the tumor and its microenvironment.
This research involves a multidisciplinary team of computational biologists, epidemiologists, structural biologists, and clinicians, highlighting Pine’s commitment to collaboration and relationship building.
“My goal is to ensure that TORI remains a leader in lung cancer research and I’ll do that by supporting new and cutting-edge pilot studies, and also mentoring early-career researchers and recruiting new faculty,” Pine says. “It’s important to me to make sure each member of TORI is successful and that everyone genuinely knows they’re highly valued as members of the team.”
Building relationships in the community
Among her goals when she steps into the TORI director role on July 1 is working to re-secure the TORI’s Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) funding from the National Cancer Institute and beginning to build relationships throughout the state that bridge research and non-scientific communities.
“Working together, there’s a lot we can do to help reduce the stigma associated with lung cancer,” Pine says. “Anybody with lungs can get lung cancer, but it’s so common for people who receive a lung cancer diagnosis to feel nervous or embarrassed to talk about it.”
In New Jersey, Pine helped facilitate conversations called Science Café, in which researchers met with community members to discuss science in everyday language. Communicating science in a way that is approachable and applicable to non-scientists is vital for partnership building in the community.
Pine says she is excited not only to help build such relationships on the Front Range and throughout Colorado, but to support relationships between TORI and other institutions, as well as between researchers from various departments in the CU Cancer Center.
“I feel very honored and privileged to come work with such an esteemed group of researchers,” Pine says. “I see such a potential for high success and I just can’t wait to get started.”