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Swim Across America Event Supports Cancer Research at Women & Infants Hospital

Written By: Women and Infants on April 26, 2022


The nonprofit Swim Across America (SAA) runs charity swim events nationwide that, since 1987, have raised over $100 million for cancer research and patient programs. By supporting studies that have not yet received National Institutes of Health or other government grants, this funding underscores the importance of philanthropy to potentially lifesaving or life-altering medical research. 

Since 2010, SAA’s open water charity swim in Rhode Island has raised over $2 million for cancer research at Women & Infants Hospital. These funds helped researchers in our Program in Women’s Oncology Center for Biomarkers & Emerging Technology (CBET) discover a biomarker for ovarian cancer and introduce to clinical practice an algorithm that estimates with specificity the risk of ovarian cancer in women with a pelvic mass. 

This test is now used worldwide and is a game changer for women with ovarian cancer, which is notoriously difficult to diagnose at an early stage when it is most treatable. This research has expanded to study the function of the biomarker within cancer cells and the use of novel therapeutics that target the biomarker. 

The 2022 SAA Rhode Island Open Water Swim is taking place Saturday, September 10, at Roger Wheeler State Beach in scenic Narragansett. This annual event attracts over 700 swimmers and volunteers of all ages, including Olympians such as this year’s emcee Elizabeth Beisel. For information about sponsoring, donating, or registering to swim or volunteer for the event, visit https://www.swimacrossamerica.org/rhodeisland or to see photos from previous years' events view their photo album.

The Need for Cancer Research 

More than 300,000 women will receive breast or ovarian cancer diagnoses in the U.S. this year alone. This staggering statistic keeps all of us at Women & Infants motivated to achieve better patient outcomes through state-of-the-art treatment and world-class research performed by some of the most talented clinicians and investigators in the world. 

Although current treatments help cure some breast or ovarian cancer patients, many ovarian cancers and some forms of breast cancer are more adverse. Treatments for all types of cancer can have near-term and long-term negative effects, including undesirable hormonal changes and diminished fertility. 

Researchers in the Program in Women’s Oncology at Women & Infants strive to overcome these effects and improve female cancer patients’ lives by developing better treatment approaches, identifying new prognostic biomarkers, and improving our understanding of how cancer treatments affect long-term fertility and ovarian function. This work is driven by their dedication to the women we serve. 

Current SAA-Funded Research Studies

Assistant Professors Jennifer Ribeiro, Ph.D., and Nicole James, Ph.D., conduct research studies focusing on the complex interactions that occur in ovarian tumors and a certain kind of breast cancer that lacks hormone receptors, called “triple negative” breast cancer. All tumors have an immune component resulting from the body’s response to the tumor as a “foreign entity.” The Ribeiro lab is investigating how immune components in the tumor respond to different treatments such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy. The goal is to optimize current treatments or identify new treatment approaches that capitalize on this immune response. 

In a recent SAA-supported study published by the Ribeiro lab, patients with higher tumor levels of certain immune factors exhibited improved survival outcomes. However, we still do not know exactly how these immune factors respond to standard chemotherapy and what role they play in chemoresistance. 

“Ovarian cancer patients who invariably become resistant to chemotherapy need new treatments that will improve their response to chemotherapy or prevent them from developing resistance,” said Ribeiro. “We believe that understanding the tumor’s immune response to chemotherapy can help us identify and modulate immune factors in a manner that could improve chemotherapy response and patient outcomes.” 

Assistant Professor Kathryn Grive, Ph.D., is similarly interested in helping women afflicted with cancer, but from the perspective of improving quality of life during and after treatment. New and improved cancer therapeutics are enabling more women to survive their primary disease. But the after-effects of chemotherapy, such as premature menopause, affect these women’s ability to bear children and cause other systemic health consequences typically associated with aging, including increased risk of heart attack and stroke, accelerated cognitive decline, and overall shorter lifespan. 

The Grive lab is investigating the mechanisms of chemotherapy-induced ovarian damage and researching reduced dosing regimens that may be ovary-sparing. The lab is also identifying the mechanisms of healthy ovary development to help better exploit those mechanisms for ovarian protection. A recent study, currently in review and supported by SAA funding, has identified one such protein that when inhibited may promote egg survival and preserve ovarian health. 

“Swim Across America funding helped us generate the foundational data that is informing our current studies,” said Dr. Grive. “We’re now investigating the effects of chemotherapeutics on ovarian function and long-term health, the transgenerational effects on a cancer survivor’s daughters, and the development of reproductive diagnostics to measure ovarian health after chemotherapy.” 

“Swim Across America funding also supports the training of our next generation of scientists and doctors,” added Dr. Ribeiro. “Providing medical fellows in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Department of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility the opportunity to conduct laboratory research helps them understand what it takes to drive new research and treatments forward while also learning how best to treat patients in the clinic.”

Women & Infants Hospital is one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious research facilities in high risk and normal obstetrics, gynecology and newborn pediatrics. Learn more about all of the different research studies happening at Women & Infants.

 

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