Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where cancer research is being performed with...

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where cancer research is being performed with the help of organoids, patient-derived tissue from which small tumors can be grown. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Whether it’s finding new ways to detect cancer, battling it with innovative drugs, or reducing side effects of treatment, researchers across Long Island are focused on trying to conquer the second leading cause of death nationwide.

It’s too soon to know how President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative will assist local efforts to find cures and treatments, but researchers say putting this intense spotlight on cancer is a vital step.

“Cancer is an extraordinary source of mortality and morbidity, not only in the United States population, but the world population,” said Jeff Boyd, director of the Institute of Cancer Research at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, the research arm of Northwell Health. “I think it’s important to focus on that because to a great extent, many cancers are preventable.”

Boyd said it’s research and clinical trials must include diversity, both in the types of cancers as well as in the ethnic and racial diversity of patients.

Feinstein has a partnership with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where cancer research is being performed with the help of organoids, patient-derived tissue from which small tumors can be grown.

Boyd said one vital area of research is called “individualized integrated cancer care,” which focuses on developing new, precision drugs that are less toxic than traditional chemotherapy treatments.

“These precision therapeutics recognize specific mutant genes and the proteins produced by those mutant genes and target those specific mutant proteins,” he said. “The other approach is immunotherapy, levering the patient's own immune system to recognize cancer as foreign and attacking those cancer cells immunologically.”

“The combination of precision therapeutics and cancer immunotherapies is the future of cancer care along with radiation therapy and surgery, which are not going away anytime soon,” he said.

Feinstein and Cold Spring Harbor are working together on another vital emerging field in cancer research — cancer neuroscience, Boyd said. There is increasing evidence that indicates the nervous system plays a central role in the development of cancer and its progression.

At the Stony Brook University Cancer Center, researchers are working on a number of programs such as one that examines how cancer cells establish themselves by subverting lipids, a structural component of cell membranes.

Other programs at the center are focused on creating new imaging techniques and biomarkers, a molecule in the blood that helps signal the presence of disease, for more precise treatment.

“The Stony Brook Cancer Center has developed areas of exceptional strength in cancer research and cancer medicine, including novel imaging and detection of cancers, applying cutting edge machine learning and artificial intelligence to cancer diagnostics and risk, providing novel insights into cancer development, metastasis and therapeutics through the study of lipids, miRNA-based therapeutics, and mechanisms of oncogenesis,” said Dr. Yusuf A. Hannun, director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center, in a statement.

At the Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island, clinical trials are being conducted in a number of areas. One is examining whether a medication can decrease the sexual side effects of radiation therapy in people with prostate cancer. Another is reviewing the use of a caffeine-based antifibrosis cream to ease side effects impacting the skin of breast cancer patients in radiation therapy.

Researchers on Long Island are also delving into the issue of community cancer health, which helps determine how to get services to the general public, especially underserved populations.

That can include cancer prevention programs that promote a good diet and healthy lifestyle as well as free and low-cost screenings, such as mobile mammography services.

There are challenges such as language barriers, cultural differences and lack of trust based on history, Boyd said, adding that research is needed to figure out how to best disseminate the information and services, for example, through community and religious leaders.

Prevention and early screening strategies have proved to be effective in battling cancer.

“There are some cancers that could be completely eliminated, such as cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine,” Boyd said. “Detecting breast cancer, colon cancer, cervical cancer early would allow for a huge amount of progress. Getting those screenings is a challenge but something we are committed to doing.”

Latest videos

Newsday LogoDON'T MISS THIS LIMITED-TIME OFFER1 5 months for only $1Save on Unlimited Digital Access