Professor Maria Contel, head researcher and director, BCCC-CURE
In the fall of 2017, Professor of Chemistry and then incoming department chair Maria Contel had a revelation: There already were many successful, well-funded researchers at Brooklyn College focused solely on cancer or a related field. Some of that research, Contel realized, was being done in the Biology Department lead by then-chair, Professor Jennifer Basil.
Contel got together with Basil. “We thought: Wouldn’t it be great to create a center that focuses on one specific disease, such as cancer?” says Contel. “And instead of our individual departments competing, we could work together to obtain grant money and research funds.”
This is the origin story of The Brooklyn College Cancer Center-CommUnity Outreach, Research and Education (BCCC-CURE), established at the college last summer. Partnered with CUNY’s Graduate Center, Maimonides Cancer Center, and The Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY, its goal is to enhance the lives of cancer patients with a focus on Brooklyn residents. Contel is now director of BCCC-CURE and head of research, Basil the associate director of community outreach, and Professor of Chemistry Brian Gibney is associate director of education.
The heart of their approach centers on these three categories. The last—outreach—came from sharing the vision of a cancer center with local politicians who were excited about the idea.
“Brooklyn College is much beloved by the borough,” says Basil. “It really is a good hub to create something like this.”
Brooklyn College President Michelle J. Anderson was also enthusiastic. “President Anderson has been very supportive from the beginning, as have Provost Anne Lopes and Peter Tolias, dean of the School of Behavioral and Natural Sciences,” says Contel.
The center quietly made its debut last September. After CUNY approved a three-year plan the Brooklyn College Foundation donated seed money, a task force and advisory board were created last summer—with no ribbon-cutting or ceremony to mark the occasion due to the pandemic.
The Brooklyn College scientists had reached out to the National Cancer Institute’s “Designated Cancer Centers,” ones recognized for their leadership in laboratory and clinical research such as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. Jason Lewis, the Emily Tow Jackson Chair in Oncology there and now a member of the BCCC-CURE advisory board, introduced them to like-minded people in the field.
“We wanted a diverse group for the board, ideally scientists from SUNY Downstate, Maimonides, and Sloan-Kettering who had experience working in healthcare disparities or a particular interest in the health of women and people of color,” says Contel. This includes, Dr. Carol Brown, the senior vice president, chief health equity officer, and Nicholls-Biondi Chair for Health Equity at Sloan Kettering, and Dr. Moro Salifu, chair of the Department of Medicine at SUNY Downstate and director of the NIH-funded Brooklyn Health Disparities Center.
Included are Dr. Patrick I. Borgen, the chairman of surgery at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, and Dr. Marilyn Fraser ’94, chief executive officer of the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health and a research associate professor at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University. Two other alumni on the board also serve as Brooklyn College Foundation trustees: Dr. Joanne Waldstreicher ’81, chief medical officer at Johnson & Johnson and the 2021 distinguished alumna, and Bernard Garil ’62 who, along with his wife Ethel, has supported Brooklyn College students generously in the area of cancer research for many years. Named for their children, who both passed away from cancer, The Stacey Garil Womack Memorial Fund at Johns Hopkins Cancer Center in Baltimore and the Michael Garil Memorial Summer Internship at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston continue to provide outstanding students with a chance of a lifetime opportunity to work with some of the top oncologists in the country.
Research, Education, Outreach
Twenty-five faculty members are focused on cancer and cancer-related research at BCCC-CURE in one of three main areas: the biology and biochemistry of cancer, the underlying mechanisms of the disease, and drug development and delivery systems.
To that end, Contel, an organometallic chemist, has already successfully used gold compounds to combat different types of cancer and holds a patent for gold-and-titanium compounds used to battle renal cancer. She holds a second patent for a ruthenium-based compound that will help fight triple-negative breast cancer, a tough one that does not respond to traditional treatments.
Several other researchers from the center also hold patents for potential treatments for cancer or related diseases: Professor Alec Greer has a patent on a singlet oxygen device for destruction of pathogens; Professor Peter Lipke has one on preventing biofilms (including cancer-associated fungal infections); and Professor Ryan Murelli has a patent on compounds to treat hepatitis B. Part of the work carried out by these and other BCCC-CURE researchers is done in collaboration with many prestigious institutions in the United States and abroad.
“In the Chemistry Department we are developing potential drugs for different types of cancer or delivery systems of FDA-approved drugs,” says Contel, explaining that they have done a lot of research on nanocarriers, microscopic materials used to more safely transport a substance such a drug through the body, work that has the potential to revolutionize chemotherapy—and which was used to develop the COVID-19 vaccine.
In the minds of many, the default image for cancer research is scientists working in laboratories with high-powered microscopes. The third area of research at BCCC-CURE is more outward-facing and patient-oriented.
“We have a computer scientist who is interested in doing an analysis of large data related to cancer patients and we have three faculty members from the psychology department who have projects they are working on for patients of other diseases that could be easily translated into research benefiting cancer patients,” says Contel. “We also plan on supporting researchers in other diseases. Many are connected, there are a lot of comorbidities. Recently the outcomes for cancer patients with COVID-19 have been terrible because they had to delay care.”
Since October 2020, BCCC-CURE has been holding well-attended virtual scientific seminars in collaboration with the college and outside experts in the field. The center has also given small grants to faculty and facilitated peer reviews to assist in successful grant submissions to federal agencies.
“We are grateful for a donation from Bernard Garil to establish seven summer research internships for undergraduate students who will start in June,” says Contel. “We hope to be able to establish more students fellowships for master’s and doctoral students by future donations.
“We also hope to have a full-time director, members of staff, and very importantly, we want to have good facilities and dedicated state-of-the art laboratories for the center,” she adds.
In addition to BCCC-CURE’s current formal partners, there are plans to partner with other institutions and strengthen links with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and SUNY Downstate.
Opportunities for Students
Brian Gibney says that his eye is always on finding opportunities for students, particularly undergraduates. The professor of chemistry says these may be in-classroom, but will more likely be chances for enrichment outside the campus walls. A medical translation course for bilingual undergraduate students in partnership with Memorial Sloan Kettering has been a great success.
“This spring, we had 19 students learning how to interpret and bridge patient-to-physician communication in the clinic,” says Gibney. “So if somebody comes in who speaks Creole as a first language, then a person fluent in the language, who is also trained to interpret and translate medical terms, can explain symptoms and pass other vital information between doctor and patient.”
Students who receive training in medical translation—and Brooklyn College has a student body that speaks more than 90 languages—receive a certificate that can gain them employment in a city of many cultures and ethnicities.
”This course is not something you usually find in your undergraduate curriculum,” says Gibney. “Sloan Kettering was very pleased with our students, so much so that medical translation is being offered again this fall.”
Gibney and BCCC-CURE aim to identify more opportunities—internships, fellowships, scholarships—either at the college, locally, or even nationwide that will afford students a chance at some in-the-field research experience in the cancer field.
“The long-term vision is to be able to help departments develop educational opportunities, whether that’s master’s programs, or programs like the B.A.-M.D., or certificate programs in the healthcare field, not only to accommodate students who say, ‘I want to be a doctor,’ but those who want to be physician’s assistants or nurses or home healthcare or community health workers. The provost is making a significant push in that direction.”
Disparities at the Forefront
Basil, community outreach director, has the experience of being what she calls a breast cancer “post participant.”
When she was in her thirties, she was diagnosed with HER2 positive breast cancer, one common in younger women and very aggressive. At the time, there were no targeted treatments.
“Mine was very aggressive,” says Basil. “There is a perception that when you get cancer, you have to go to Manhattan. Well, I got treated right here in Brooklyn! It’s 16 years later, and I’m OK.”
Basil went on to do advocacy work through Gilda’s Club, named after actress Gilda Radner, best-known for her roles in Saturday Night Live. Radner died in 1989 at age 42 of ovarian cancer, and organizations that focus on early detection, hereditary factors, and support were founded in her name.
Basil began organizing, in collaboration with BCCC-CURE partners, outreach events, which kicked off this spring. Two recent events included a screening by Jody Steinhardt, coordinator of the Lung Cancer Screening at Maimonides, and a seminar for students on cervical cancer, which, Basil notes, is rising in younger people. The center also held a half-day symposium with Maimonides on colorectal cancer.
With health disparities at the forefront of the healthcare conversation and organizations such as The National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute sharply focused on health equity, BCCC-CURE is in step. Basil’s job, with a corps of cancer researchers who are training in health disparities, is to connect with the surrounding community, which is primarily Caribbean.
“I’m thrilled that health disparities are being addressed because we have known this issue existed, but it really popped up again during the pandemic,” says Contel, who notes that the center applied for a grant to provide research fellowships to students from the neighboring Haitian and larger Caribbean community.
“We are creating ambassadors. Students from Brooklyn College who are from those communities are going to be helping in community outreach events,” she adds.
The larger vision for BCCC-CURE is to expand outreach by informing communities about access to clinical trials and creating partnerships with hospitals that are looking for diversity in their populations for those trials. Partnering with healthcare professionals and community leaders who are trusted is critical.
“We’re looking to develop opportunities for somebody who might not get state-of-the-art treatment to gain access to a clinical trial, which will cover treatment,” says Basil. “So our next step is to educate people about screening and trials. It’s been a steep learning curve because we’ve had to build bridges to create trust.”