CLEVELAND — As we celebrate Danielle Wiggins' return to WKYC Studios after her own breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, we're taking a look at what's next in the fight against the disease. At Cleveland Clinic, dollars raised by VeloSano have just been committed to three research projects aimed at better lives and better outcomes for breast cancer patients.
VeloSano is the Clinic's year-round community driven fundraising initiative to support life-saving cancer research. The flagship fundraising event, Bike to Cure, traditionally includes thousands of participants committing to raise funds and riding their bikes in/around downtown Cleveland. One hundred percent of the dollars raised are awarded directly to research by spring of the following year.
Now $30 million strong, VeloSano just awarded 21 pilot grants—three of them for breast cancer projects. Lerner Researcher Dr. Angela Ting works in genomic medicine, and says the funding has given her team the green light.
"Without VeloSano, we really wouldn't be able to pursue the project that we proposed," she told 3News. "We're trying to understand how this particular gene called DNA JB 61 functions in breast cancer."
Thanks to this latest round of funding, Ting's team of three will spend the next two years investigating if changes to that gene's DNA methylation impacts aggressive cancer behaviors, and if so, how. The research itself is complex.
"An analogy that I give to my own grandmother, to explain to her what I do, is to think of DNA as the hard wiring of our houses," Ting explained. "In every room, we have lights, we have appliances, [but] when we want to turn things on and off, we don't just cut the wire, right?"
Instead, we use light switches, and that is similar to how DNA methylation controls and changes our cells.
It's early, but the project could help experts understand breast cancer biology, and lay the foundation to help secure additional external funding to continue their research.
"Hopefully, one day, we will make a significant impact in how we treat or detect breast cancer," Ting said.
And more innovation is at work. Plastic surgeon Dr. Graham Schwarz is studying a known and sometimes debilitating complication for breast cancer survivors: Lymphedema, which he says can take quite a toll on patients.
"It can really impact their quality of life, their self image, their financial situation in many ways," Schwarz said of such patients.
Certain surgical or radiation treatments targeting the lymph nodes can lead to a blockage in the lymphatic system—which causes progressive swelling, typically in the arm.
"These are all therapies that, while important for curing breast cancer, can also contribute to damage of [the] lymphatic system," Schwarz admitted. "As we get farther along with lymphedema, it becomes more difficult to manage for patients, it becomes more difficult to treat."
As soon as this fall, Schwarz's team will recruit 30 patients who don't yet have symptoms but are at high risk for developing lymphedema. They'll use guided imaging and artificial intelligence to note small changes, hoping to intervene early when necessary, and using the data to create a screening tool for all survivors who may be at risk.
"What we'll be able to do is we'll be able to create these computerized AI models and hopefully predict those who are going to go on to lymphedema so we can stop it," Schwarz said.
The third project is aimed developing a new immunotherapy treatment for triple-negative breast cancer, the deadliest form. All six-figure grants are funded by the those who ride and donate.
"To all the patients, you are why we're doing this," Ting said, "and hopefully all of our efforts combined together will really make an impact."
"We're really lucky to have this opportunity."