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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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New A&M research initiative provides cutting-edge cancer treatments

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Dr. Weston Porter (top left) and researchers from the breast cancer lab. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Weston Porter)

It has been 20 months since Michelle Pozzi, Ph.D, of Texas A&M’s Biochemistry and Biophysics department was diagnosed with cancer. However, through a combination of radiation, cutting edge medicine and personal strength, her cancer is now inactive and she continues to teach.

“I have ER [estrogen-receptor] positive breast cancer,” Pozzi said. “And, what made mine bizarre … is that when they determined I had it, it had already metastasized to every bone in my body, except my arms, legs, hands.”

Pozzi had to go to the Houston Methodist Cancer Center for treatment due to the lack of comprehensive cancer care in Bryan and College Station.

“I first went in for a neurologist, and once he determined it was cancer, he passed me onto a bone and lung specialist … then I went to a breast cancer oncologist,” Pozzi said. “Treatment was 10 days of the highest radiation your body can take, from my brain stem all the way down to my [lower back].”

The inability to access cutting edge medication and treatments in Bryan-College Station is not unique to Pozzi, other cancer researchers remarked. A group of young researchers heading the Texas Regional Excellent in Cancer, or TREC, center initiative at the A&M Health Center of Excellence in Cancer Research are looking to create access for patients in central Texas and eliminate the burden of having to travel to major cities for treatment.

Texas A&M’s wide-ranging research in biomedical engineering, veterinary medicine, medical physiology and biosciences are included in the $6 million grant to create the TREC Center. New infrastructure will need to be built and more scientists recruited, but young professors such as Shreya Raghavan, Ph.D, are more than willing to step up.

Raghavan is using her grant funds to investigate a young field of cancer research: mechanobiology.

“I started working in ovarian cancer during my [postdoctoral] in Michigan,” Raghavan said. “Then, I moved [to Texas] and I said ‘How can we combine everything and see why some aspects of cancer escape our body’s immune system?’”

Dr. Raghavan’s focus is eliminating metastatic cancers and training the next generation of research scientists.

“Comprehensive cancer centers … have a critical mass of basic research that can go from the lab bench to the patient,” Raghavan said. “How do you make a therapy out of things we are doing in lab? By linking mechanics to cancer progression, you are opening new ways to treat or prevent cancer.”

Part of Pozzi’s treatment has involved participating in clinical trials and experimental drugs that may extend her life. 

“There is a medication right now called Verzenio [that I take] … usually [medications] only last so long until they stop working,” Pozzi said. “The new drug trial is … going to chew off the estrogen receptor, the main thing that fuels the cells.”

Verzenio is currently listed at $15,405.72 per month, which presents a significant financial burden for many cancer patients.

The support Pozzi gained from her department, her friends and her Christian faith were a major source of comfort for her, she said. 

“Our department, absolutely amazing. [Other instructors] came to my house at least once every week. They would do bake sales, bring money for us, they made a ‘Pray For Dr. Pozzi’ bracelet … that part was amazing,” Pozzi said.

Pozzi represents a rising cohort of women diagnosed with breast cancer at younger ages in the United States. This trend has jump-started research into breast cancer. Weston Porter, Ph.D., of the Department of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology is looking to address this trend within his lab.

“We’re looking at metastatic, ER positive breast cancer,” Porter said. “We’re looking at women who have breast cancer before age 45. One of the [principal investigators] on the grant, Ginger Borges, she’s an oncologist, and when she looks at patients she says … ‘I’m trying to get them to weddings and graduations.’”

Dr. Porter is a mentor at the TREC center and hopes to bring his decades of experience at Texas A&M to young researchers. 

“I’m there to help with the idea a little bit, but mainly to make sure they’re not stepping on ‘landmines,’” Porter said. “I want to make sure they’re doing everything correctly, so when they do use their ideas they have the right tools in place.”

Like Raghavan, Porter said his work is meant to expand access to new treatments and research.

“That’s why these research centers like [TREC] are so neat, you just don’t realize how quickly you get treatments into the general population through these large medical centers,” Pozzi said.

Pozzi said she had two main objectives: empowering students to make better choices and teaching empathy to future healthcare professionals.

“As an educator, when you teach biochemistry … you want to understand how your body is designed to work, and when things go wrong, what’s going wrong. It helps you think about things,” Pozzi said. “They are future nutritionists, dentists, vets, chiropractors. I think sharing my story also will help with how the diagnosis goes, and help think beyond the classroom and a test into the reality of what you’re learning.”

Pozzi says she expects to live the rest of her life with cancer.

“It’s not about a cure,” Pozzi said. “It’s about a treatment, to withstand time before cancer gets the better of my body … When you find yourself melting down over a test or a busy week, keep it in perspective. It’s all a learning point. There will be harder days ahead, and hard news to deliver … But with the hard, comes the great.”

Those wishing to support Pozzi can do so by contributing to her GoFundMe campaign.

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    John D Rowe MDApr 12, 2024 at 2:06 am

    Our great Creator be with you on this journey. Those of us in Medicine (I am a retired MD) know that cancers and a multitude of other diseases do not show any favouritism. However, I do believe in a God of miracles and exceptional Grace. May you feel His comforting Presence. A friend of Rick Henderson’s from high school in TX.

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