By Contributing Writer - May 30, 2019
You wouldn’t expect to find Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman in a research lab, peering through a microscope at tumor cells.
But that was the point of the Scientist Shadowing Event at Moffitt Cancer Center.
The goal was to expose local, state and federal government leaders to the hardworking investigators on the frontline of cancer research, and then to hear from patients who are counting on progress from these efforts.
“It’s just an eye-opening experience,” said Murman, who toured labs where research focuses on cancer cells of various types that have spread to bone. “I remember walking through the doors when Moffitt first opened and research was really just a blank space,” she recalled. Today, that space is overflowing with an urgent need to expand Moffitt’s research facilities. “That means it’s working,” Murman added. “Moffitt’s investigators are getting grants because people value what’s going on here.”
Tampa City Councilman Charlie Miranda reflected on the many constituents who’ve shared their own cancer battles with him. “Most people don’t know the research part of it,” said Miranda. “So it’s a relief, like when someone pats you on the back and says it’s going to be OK. It’s a mental relief to know Moffitt is working on this research.”
His fellow Tampa Councilman Joseph Citro was encouraged by the rapid pace of research developments, especially in studying how the body’s immune system can be tapped to battle cancer. “With the research that Moffitt does, we are going to have so much more healing power within the next 10-to-15 years. I’m grateful that Moffitt invited me to come out and see what’s being done here.”
After their lab tours, officials heard from a panel of three Moffitt patients about their cancer experiences and the hope they’ve found through research. Patti Halula, a longtime Moffitt patient first diagnosed with breast cancer more than 20 years ago, explained how research furthered at Moffitt has buoyed her through multiple relapses. “At one point when I was in remission, my Moffitt physician told me, ‘You’re doing well. Now, your goal is to stay well until the next new thing comes along.’ But that next new thing won’t be there for me or other patients without support for the type of research going on at Moffitt.”
When it comes to advocating for that support, event co-organizers and Moffitt researchers Drs. Eric Lau and Alice Chan hope that the invited officials now have a better understanding of what’s needed. Lau began the presentation with an overview of who staffs a research lab, what type of training and education is needed and how much it costs to successfully staff these efforts. “They need to know how complicated and diverse an ecosystem each lab is and how much it actually takes to do good research,” said Lau. “We hope that they’ll have a better perspective and know exactly what they’re going to bat for — if and when they go to bat for us — in terms of funding or governmental support and policy changes that might affect us.”
The shadowing event is patterned after a successful program called Moffitt Patient Researcher Forums that was spearheaded by Lau and a group of his Moffitt colleagues. Each month, select patients tour research labs to learn what’s being studied about their type of cancer. Afterward, over lunch, the researchers learn firsthand from the patients about the reality of a cancer diagnosis, its treatment and effects on all aspects of their lives. From the very first such forum, Lau says the often emotional exchange fueled the researchers’ motivation.
“To varying degrees, studies conducted by almost all of the researchers here are focused on trying to improve some aspect of the patient experience,” said Lau, “whether that’s mitigating side effects or it’s enhancing their response to therapies or making better therapies. When researchers have the opportunity to learn about the patients’ experiences and journeys, it can significantly increase motivation and stimulate more patient-focused research efforts.”
Hopefully, the shadowing event will have similar impacts on the elected leaders who had a chance to learn more about Moffitt research and the patients it affects.