Researcher Fights Cancer in the Lab and on the Run

Special to UM News

Pierre-Jacques Hamard

Pierre-Jacques Hamard

“Being a cancer researcher is not only a job, it’s also a commitment to patients and the community,” says Pierre-Jacques Hamard, Ph.D., an associate scientist in the laboratory of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center Director Stephen D. Nimer, M.D. “That is why I am doing the 5k run at this year’s Dolphins Cancer Challenge.”

On a regular day in the lab, Hamard is studying the mechanisms driving leukemias, which are blood cancers. He’s particularly interested in a gene called PRMT5, what role it plays under normal conditions, and what it does in cancer cells. Eventually, he and his colleagues want to use PRMT5 as a target for new precision therapies because the gene has been shown to be over-expressed in a number of cancers. “The idea is, if we inhibit PRMT5 or the resulting protein with a small molecule, perhaps we can kill the cancer cells that depend on that gene to function,” he said.

The laboratory Hamard works in collaborates with a number of biotech companies to identify compounds that target this protein. “We already have small molecules that we can test in the lab on different systems and we have preliminary data showing that these compounds can slow down the proliferation of cancer cells,” he said. “Obviously, this is very preliminary and we need to confirm our findings in different systems, but it is very encouraging.”

Hamard is a co-author of a 2015 scientific paper that described the role of PRMT5 in normal, non-cancerous cells. “We found that PRMT5 is a very important gene for blood production in the body,” he said. “The question now is how can we treat leukemia patients without affecting the role PRMT5 plays in normal blood production?” Since PRMT5 is over-expressed in leukemia, scientists believe that cancer cells could be more dependent on this gene than normal cells, which might render them more sensitive to PRMT5 inhibitors, offering the clinicians a therapeutic window for targeting PRMT5.

This kind of research taking place at Sylvester is possible partly because of the funds received from the DCC. “I’m doing what I’m doing because of the patients and I want to discover new and better cures and therapies,” said Hamard, who also rode in last year’s DCC. “I love to show people that even we scientists, who have dedicated our lives to research, are also involved in events like the DCC. We are not only ‘lab rats;’ we are also passionate community members and we want to tackle cancer once and for all.”

To register for the DCC, which will take place on Saturday, February 20, please visit TeamHurricanes.org.

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Hurricane Hero Bryan Norcross Shares His Sea Secrets

By Alex Bassil
UM News

NorcrossMIAMI, Florida, (January 22, 2016)—Bryan Norcross, a senior hurricane specialist, at The Weather Channel who many Miamians fondly remember as “the voice who talked us through Hurricane Andrew,” opened the 21st annual “Sea Secrets—Exploring Our Oceans 2016” lecture series at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science on January 21 by sharing his experiences and a century’s worth of data and research on storms and the effects of El Niño.

Reminding the audience that social media did not exist when Hurricane Andrew hit, the longtime South Florida resident explored his belief that the proliferation of communications platforms will make it more difficult to motivate people living in a hurricane’s path to act and, if necessary, evacuate.

He described a communications paradox, resulting in the highly refined scientific capability to forecast a hurricane’s path but not exactly where the eye will hit. He believes the increasing number of ways to communicate has led to less-accurate information provided to an audience with shorter attention spans. He cited limited news resources and personnel, the lack of land phone lines, fewer credible sources, and more uninformed opinions disseminated about hurricanes and their paths as challenges.

“A dramatic improvement in forecasting science does not equal perfect forecasts,” Norcross said.

Sharing data from 1916 to the present in 50-year increments about hurricane activity and El Niño’s impact on the South Florida peninsula, he asked, “Is this related to climate change? Could this be a positive thing? We don’t know.”

Norcross suggests focusing more communications on the hurricane’s cone of probability, honing the message, and sending it from one source. He warned that younger generations accustomed to navigation apps cannot read a map to know if they are in an evacuation zone. He also warned that many residents haven’t been through a storm and, when the next one hits, the loss of cell phones and closed roadways will complicate the chaos.

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Researcher is Passionate About Sylvester

Michael Samuels

Radiation oncologist Michael Samuels, who will ride in the DCC on February 20, said funds raised by the charity ride help Sylvester investigators get their research projects off the ground.

Michael Samuels, a radiation oncologist specializing in head and neck cancers at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, has been a passionate rider in the Dolphins Cancer Challenge since 2011. “I joined Sylvester in November 2010, and Jerry Goodwin, our chief medical officer, immediately encouraged me to sign up for DCC II and explained how important the event was for Sylvester,” Samuels recalled. “I agreed and participated in 2011. It was an incredibly exciting event, and I’ve been a part of it ever since.”

When Samuels signed up for the 100-mile ride in 2011, he had to train hard; he had not been on a bike since he was 18. Despite the odds, he not only finished, he also joined the 80-mile ride in 2012, bringing the total miles he rides each year to 180.

“There are many reasons why I’m so passionate about the DCC. What it does is crucial for Sylvester,” Samuels said. “Last year, the DCC generated $4.3 million, which went directly to research here at the cancer center.” Many of Sylvester’s investigators depend on DCC money for “pilot funding,” which gets their research projects off the ground and generates initial data that can be used to apply to funding sources outside of Sylvester.

“You can’t get an NIH grant in most cases or an important foundation grant without preliminary data,” said Samuels. He currently has two Sylvester grants to support tissue collection and to help fund the laboratory that performs the genetic analysis of the tissue. His team focuses on the genetic makeup of throat tumors caused by human papillomavirus and whether the virus could be re-activated under certain circumstances. Both grants were made possible by the DCC.

“Without the DCC, there is no way our team could get this important work done,” he said. “DCC strengthens the Sylvester research program in so many fundamental ways.”

But Samuels has another reason he’s a passionate DCC rider: “Anybody here has to ask herself or himself: how can I give back to Sylvester? Working here is a privilege—this is, by far, the most exciting environment I’ve ever been a part of. So the question is: how can I go above and beyond?”

For Samuels, participating in the DCC also demonstrates a different level of commitment. It allows him to go to people who support him and to his patients with a compelling reason to become part of the Sylvester team. “They usually say yes with enthusiasm,” he says. ”Any success I have had with DCC comes because those around me are amazingly generous. And by the time of the event, we all feel great about what we’re doing.”

Summing up his passion, he says, “When I see the impact, the research team using the funds, and understand the ultimate benefit to our patients—how could I not participate?”

To sign up for this year’s DCC on February 20, please visit TeamHurricanes.org.


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Visualization Goes High Tech at Viz Lab

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (January 20, 2016) – The aerial image of a Colombian shantytown appeared on the large display screen with such clarity that the 12 people gathered for the demonstration could identify the types and number of garments hanging from a clothesline on the rooftop of a shack.

“Just imagine what can be done with hurricane tracks and climatological data,” said Nick Tsinoremas, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Computational Science (CCS).

Tsinoremas was commending the visual and display capabilities of the 22-foot-long 2-D display monitor inside CCS’s new Visualization Lab. From a bird’s-eye view of a shantytown to an illustration of the branchlike projections of neurons called dendrites, the lab allows faculty members, researchers, scientists, and students to display high-resolution images, data, charts, and other information in visually stunning formats.

“This is a facility that will appeal to just about anyone on campus—architecture, business, the medical, and marine schools,” said Joel Zysman, director of high-performance computing for CCS. “Researchers can display their data like never before, but not only that, do something with that data such as perform live analysis.”

A tie-in with CCS’s Pegasus supercomputer makes that possible, allowing researchers to run simulations through the powerful device and then display their results on screen for analysis and discussion.

A plug-and-play system, the 2-D monitor is capable of displaying one large image or breaking up different components of data into as many as ten individual screens. A smaller 3-D monitor is also available, but content for that system must be specially created, and to experience the 3-D effect, special glasses must be worn.

Carie Penabad, associate professor in the School of Architecture, said she plans to use the Viz Lab at some point to present her ongoing research on shantytowns. With assistance from CCS, Penabad is using drones to map squatter settlements in Latin American countries such as Colombia and the Dominican Republic, using her charts to document and better understand areas not included on official local government maps yet are home to hundreds of thousands of people who live in horrid conditions.

“I can see all kinds of incredible projects that will be related to what our graduate students do,” said Gina Maranto, director of the undergraduate program in ecosystem science and policy, who gathered some of her students to attend a demo session of the lab, located on the third floor of the Ungar Building.

“They do a lot, especially the students who are working on things like vector-borne diseases,” explains Maranto. “We have three or four students who have been doing visualization and looking at land cover and trying to correlate mosquito and land cover and dengue or malaria outbreaks. Compared to working on a little screen or even a fairly large Apple screen—this stuff [the Visualization Lab] is just incredible.”

The CCS Viz Lab is a free resource for the UM community, but first-time use of the space requires an orientation session with a CCS support team. For more information on training sessions, email vizlab@miami.edu.



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Researcher Has a Passion for Leukemia—and Running

Special to UM News

Sarah Rosenblatt

Sarah Rosenblatt

Sarah Greenblatt declares her passion uniquely: “I fell in love with leukemia!” A postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center Director Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., she will participate in this year’s Dolphins Cancer Challenge (DCC) 5k run on Saturday, February 20. “Cancer has always had a big impact on my family,” she adds. “I became interested in leukemia when I worked on my Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins Medical Institute and rotated through a lab that studied small-molecule inhibitors for the treatment of pediatric leukemia.”

Greenblatt joined Sylvester three years ago and has been working on leukemia for the last two years. As part of her day in Nimer’s lab, she studies different enzymes that play a role in the development and progression of leukemia. A major goal of the lab is to come up with ways to target those enzymes in order to treat the cancer of blood cells.

“Ultimately, we want to develop a new therapy for a large number of leukemia patients, a drug that is targeted so that it causes less toxicity for patients,” she says. “We’re trying to figure out the mechanisms of how these enzymes drive leukemia and develop inhibitors for them. To do that, we develop model systems to see if the prototype inhibitors work.

To Greenblatt, leukemia is an interesting disease because, unlike solid tumors, blood can be accessed easily. “I think we know a lot more about the genetics of leukemia than other cancers, and it seems to be at the forefront of genetics research because you’re able to obtain the material easily from the patient.”

Greenblatt is one of many scientists in Nimer’s lab participating in the DCC this year. Two of her colleagues signed up for the bike ride, and Greenblatt and a few colleagues have volunteered at DCC events for kids. She signed up for the run because, as she says, “I’m a runner. I did the Marine Corps Marathon last year. I love running to release stress.”

Ultimately, she wants people to be excited about cancer research and see science in a positive light. “It’s a really interesting field,” she says. “And the progress that has been made in the last few years has been very exciting and interesting.”

Learn more and join Team Hurricanes at www.teamhurricanes.org.


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