By Amanda Sangster - February 21, 2022
During first lady Dr. Jill Biden’s visit to Moffitt Cancer Center, she met with leading experts and learned about their groundbreaking work in cancer prevention, health disparities, screenings and community engagement. Here is a behind the scenes look into these leaders and their innovative work.
Leading Moffitt into Moonshot 2.0
Dr. Patrick Hwu
Patrick Hwu, M.D., is the president and CEO of Moffitt. As an internationally recognized tumor immunologist, Hwu has led pioneering research and clinical efforts to better understand the interactions between tumors and the immune system. He helped launch the field of gene-modified T cells, publishing research on the first chimeric antigen receptor directed against cancer.
Hwu’s work focuses on vaccines, adoptive T-cell therapies and immune resistance. A physician-scientist, he has a proven track record of leading collaborative teams to make breakthroughs in science while improving cancer outcomes for cancer patients.
Hwu’s vision is to make Moffitt the cell therapy capital of the universe. His long-term plans for the center include a first-of-its kind 775-acre campus in Pasco County, Florida, that features patient care, research, biotech, wellness and digital innovation. Moffitt will be the first cancer center in the world to create a massive research and corporate innovation district.
Dr. John Cleveland
John Cleveland, Ph.D., is the executive vice president and center director at Moffitt. He is responsible for elevating Moffitt’s research enterprise and reputation for world-class bench-to-bedside science. His research interests include cancer cell checkpoints, cancer cell metabolism, cancer prevention and therapeutics, and the regulation and role of apoptosis and autophagy in the development and maintenance of cancer.
Cleveland is a member of the American Association for Cancer Research and the American Society of Hematology. He is a Moffitt Distinguished Scholar and holds the Cortner-Couch Endowed Chair for Cancer Research from the University of South Florida School of Medicine.
Cleveland had the honor of joining a select group of advocates at the White House in early February when President Joe Biden announced the relaunch of the Cancer Moonshot Program. “Every day, at Moffitt, and across the nation and the world, there are new research breakthroughs delivering superior and safe treatments for cancer patients. An emphasis that is needed now, one that is truly required to move the needle and bring this disease to its knees, is cancer prevention, which is a key part of our mission at Moffitt,” said Cleveland.
A Patient-Centered Focus at the Heart of Moffitt
Dr. Eric Lau
Eric Lau, Ph.D., has been working in cancer research for 19 years. His work focuses on determining how the protein fucosylation impacts tumor development, metastatic spread, responsiveness to therapies and interactions within the microenvironment, particularly with the immune system. His team uses melanoma and breast cancer as models for this work.
Lau spoke to the first lady about Moffitt’s Patient Researcher Forum. Co-founded by Lau in 2018, the forum is a novel patient engagement and education program with the purpose of connecting patients and caregivers with the researchers working behind the scenes of their specific cancer.
“This intimate forum with patients helps to stimulate ideas of potentially new research directions based on patient needs while promoting compassion-fueled research,” said Lau. The forum offers a powerful experience for both patients and researchers. The result is that patients understand the research behind their care while researchers experience a greater motivation and connection to the patient benefiting from their research.
Through innovative ideas like the Patient Researcher Forum, Moffitt is continually improving patient outcomes while enhancing their quality of life. Joining Lau in visiting with the first lady was his brilliant team that included cancer biology students Daniel Lester, Qian Liu, Emma Adhikari, Chase Burton and research associate Andrea Mockabee-Macias.
Stephanie Streed, Nurse Navigator
Stephanie Streed, B.S., R.N.-B.C., C.N.-B.N., is a nurse navigator in Moffitt’s Breast Oncology Program. Care coordination is critical given the options that patients face in selecting treatment and participating in clinical trials. To address this need, Moffitt implemented a nurse navigator model to provide support for patients throughout their cancer journey based upon their specific diagnosis and associated challenges.
At Moffitt, a nurse navigator contacts patients within 24 business hours of booking their first appointment. The goal of this initial contact is to connect the new patient with an expert who understands their specific disease and establishes trust between them. It takes the interaction from being something transactional to a real human connection, creating not only a clinical bond but an emotional one, as well.
Streed highlighted the distinct role she plays in a patient’s care team and serving as an advocate for patients, helping them overcome barriers to care and being available as a resource and partner from the journey of diagnosis to survivorship.
Patti Halula, Metastatic Breast Cancer Patient
Patti Halula is a metastatic breast cancer patient. First diagnosed in 1994, she has been a Moffitt patient since 2002 and was one of the first to participate in the Patient Researcher Forum. She credits her treatment success to countless research breakthroughs that she has witnessed as her disease progressed. A longtime advocate for patients and caregivers, Halula is a patient advisor with Moffitt’s Patient and Family Advisory Program and is co-chair of the Patient and Family Advisory Council.
Bringing Prevention into Diverse Communities through Mole Patrol
Dr. Jane Messina
Jane Messina, M.D., is a senior member of the departments of Anatomic Pathology and Cutaneous Oncology. Her passions include running a busy diagnostic service with over 1,500 new melanoma patients while also mentoring pathology and dermatology residents. Her research interests include pathology of the sentinel node, biomarkers of prognosis in cutaneous melanoma, and etiology and treatment of Merkel cell carcinoma.
Dr. Susan Vadaparampil
Susan Vadaparampil, Ph.D., M.P.H., is the associate center director of the Office of Community Outreach, Engagement and Equity. This office works to place health equity at the forefront of Moffitt research and ensures work is informed by an ongoing and bidirectional exchange of information and ideas between researchers and community stakeholders.
Her research uses a combination of behavioral science, epidemiology, health services and clinical perspectives to improve dissemination and uptake of new cancer prevention and control innovations into clinical practice and the community. Influenced by transdisciplinary collaboration, her work focuses on health disparities and contributes to both the scientific literature and clinical practice.
Jacqueline Smith, Melanoma Patient
Jacqueline “Jackie” Smith is a two-time stage III melanoma survivor who underwent a clinical trial at Moffitt to save her life after a lump in her groin was overlooked for years. Smith, a Black woman, now advocates for the importance of skin screenings, especially for people of color. She serves as director of Grassroots Advocacy and State Government Affairs at Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Smith was formerly associate director for U.S. Oncology Advocacy and Professional Relations at Bristol Myers Squibb where she oversaw the melanoma, breast and survivorship portfolios.
Due to her health advocacy efforts, she is a frequent speaker on Capitol Hill and beyond, including being a spotlight speaker at the Biden Cancer Summit. Most recently, she partnered with Neutrogena and Johnson & Johnson to increase melanoma awareness and sunscreen usage within communities of color.
Smith has been appointed to the National Cancer Institute’s Council of Research Advocates, the external advisory boards for Cancer Center’s Skin Cancer and Health Disparities and Health Equities SPORE programs, and a grant reviewer for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Research Program in melanoma.
The trio and Smith’s mother, Barbara, gave a tour of Moffitt’s Mole Patrol screening unit. Through this flagship program, Moffitt brings education and free skin screenings directly to Florida’s diverse communities through a variety of settings such as recreational events, workplaces and health fairs. Moffitt hopes to replicate this mobile approach to prevention across all cancer screenings.
Health Disparities within Colorectal Awareness
Dr. Clement Gwede
Clement Gwede, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.N., is senior member of the Department of Health Outcomes and Behavior. He is a public health trained investigator whose research is primarily fueled by community engagement and
community-academic partnerships that develop, test and implement behavioral interventions for prevention and early detection of colorectal and prostate cancers. He also conducts research on minority participation in clinical trials and community participation in biobanking and research involving biospecimens.
Gwede is Moffitt’s principal investigator for Screen to Save, the NCI’s Colorectal Cancer Outreach and Screening Initiative. He has published over 140 articles in professional journals. He helps oversee the Tampa Bay Community Cancer Network and shares leadership of CARES: Colorectal Cancer Awareness, Research, Education and Screening.
Dr. Cathy Meade
Cathy Meade, Ph.D., R.N., is also a senior member of Health Outcomes and Behavior and describes herself as a community-minded researcher. She is a nationally recognized leader in the fields of health disparities, community health, health literacy and cancer prevention. A champion for clear communications, her research spans cancer prevention to survivorship. Meade seeks to bring health information, services and scientific advancements “right back to the community” in ways that are accessible and understandable.
A notable outcome of her work is the creation of the Tampa Bay Community Cancer Network, a collaborative, community-academic network that serves as a springboard for responsive research, practice and community outreach, which she oversees with Gwede. The network creates and implements sustainable and effective community-based interventions to impact cancer disparities in the Tampa Bay area.
Network partners have informed numerous community-driven projects, such as studies to accelerate the adoption of colorectal cancer screenings using Fecal Immunochemical Tests in community clinics. This approach is community based and builds trustworthy partnerships for improving engagement in cancer prevention.
During their visit with the first lady, Gwede and Meade emphasized how colorectal cancer is increasing in younger age groups and represents a substantial area of cancer disparity in the Black community. Following the decline of cancer screenings during the pandemic, reenergizing communities to prioritize cancer screenings is a focus for Moffitt and its community partners.
Moffitt has been collaborating with trusted community partners, like Suncoast Community Health Centers, for more than 20 years on numerous research and outreach activities dedicated to developing culturally appropriate strategies to reach those in greatest need.
First of Its Kind Collaboration
Faculty members from Moffitt’s Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology also met the first lady. Within this team are biologists, physicists, mathematicians and computer modelers that collaborate with Moffitt physicians and scientists to answer some of cancer’s biggest questions. It’s the first collaboration of its kind in the world that uses math combined with an integrated approach of theory and experiments to identify ways to treat cancer as a chronic disease.
Dr. Sandy Anderson, Dr. Joel Brown, Dr. Heiko Enderling, Dr. Bob Gatenby and Dr. Katarzyna Rejniak are raising the next generation of mathematicians and motivating potential aspiring scientists through an eight-week mathematical oncology internship program for high school students. The group also has a unique partnership with Dartmouth University where students majoring in math can spend a semester at Moffitt working with an IMO mentor to conduct their own research.