May brings out warm weather and warm thoughts of the mothers who raised us. Many of the women faculty at Hillman are also mothers, and those who have children at home have to juggle the needs of their families with those of their research and other academic responsibilities. Recognizing that this is not easy and that even female faculty who do not have family obligations may be dealing with institutional biases that keep them from achieving their full potential, I convened a task force, which now meets monthly to address these and other issues of concern.
Hillman’s Women’s Task Force is currently chaired by Dr. Lisa Butterfield - one of our most accomplished faculty members. A tenured full Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Surgery and Immunology, Dr. Butterfield directs Hillman’s Immunologic Monitoring and Cellular Products Laboratory - a shared resource that is utilized by a large number of Hillman investigators who are conducting studies focused on cellular, biologic, and drug therapies that target the human immune system to fight cancer. Recognized nationally as one of the top investigators in the field, Dr. Butterfield currently serves as the elected president of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC), a professional organization of over 1,900 members who conduct research on cancer immunology and immunotherapy.
Other members of the task force are Drs. Kara Bernstein, Yuan Chang, Deborah Galson, Yana Najjar, Carola Neumann, Steffi Oesterreich, Laura Stabile, and Jian Yu - faculty who represent different disciplines and are at different stages of their academic research careers - and Ms. Alison Lithgow from Hillman’s Fiscal Office and Dr. Sabina Robinson from Hillman’s Office of Research Administration.
Hillman’s commitment to women and their needs includes formation and sustained support of the Women’s Cancer Research Center (WCRC) – a collaboration with the Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI) that is focused on research directed at prevention, detection, diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship of female-specific malignancies, with the bulk of the research addressing the most common (breast) and most devastating (ovarian) cancers. In 2015, more than 3,700 new cases of invasive female breast cancer and nearly 300 new invasive ovarian cancer cases (including over 230 that were late stage) were diagnosed in the 29 western Pennsylvania counties that constitute the “catchment area” of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center network.
The members of the WCRC collaborate with each other and with other Hillman investigators to conduct research that is both timely and high impact. Dr. Wendie Berg, Professor of Radiology, recently enrolled over 2,500 women to an National Cancer Institute-funded clinical trial (UPCI 17-083/NCT02643966) that will determine whether the combination of 3-D mammogram (also known as digital breast tomosynthesis) and ultrasound screening is effective at accurately detecting early breast cancers in women who have extremely dense breasts (breasts with a high volume of glandular tissue) or heterogeneously dense breasts (i.e., breasts in which some, but not all areas are dense). Because noninvasive breast cancers and small invasive tumors are often hidden from mammographic detection when ensconced in dense breast tissue, the results of this trial could help reduce the number of late-stage breast cancers that are diagnosed.
Dr. Francesmary Modugno, Associate Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, is one of the key investigators in the Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Ovarian Cancer that we share with Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. As a trained molecular epidemiologist and the Co-Director of Hillman’s Gynecologic Biospecimen and Data Bank, she participates in national and international consortia that are focused on identifying the hormonal, genetic, and immunologic factors that influence the risk of developing and dying from ovarian cancer.
Since lack of physical activity has been identified as a risk factor for breast, colon, and endometrial cancers, I highly recommend that everyone, including our hard-working female (and male) faculty, find the time to walk, run, or bicycle outside and take advantage of the beautiful May weather.
Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD