Director's Message Jan. 2015

Sharon Stack

Our snow-covered campus was full of activity as 2014 came to an end and we delved into the spring semester after a well-deserved holiday break. We experienced a great year, with our scientists and trainees participating in work that supports our mission to conduct “innovative and integrative research to confront the complex challenges of cancer”.  We continue to collaborate locally, nationally and worldwide to assemble strong and effective basic and translational research teams to address problems of significance in cancer research.  Throughout 2014, the efforts of Harper Cancer Research Institute (HCRI) scientists were heralded in scientific journals as well as in local and national mainstream press, and I invite you to visit our website’s “News” page for more details about our collective accomplishments and activities (  

At the close of 2014, two of our junior faculty received highly competitive research grants from the Department of Defense (DOD) Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program.  Dr. Siyuan Zhang, the Nancy Dee Assistant Professor of Cancer Research and Biological Sciences at Notre Dame, obtained a Breakthrough Award from the DOD Breast Cancer Research Program for his project entitled, “Targeting Neuronal-Like Metabolism of Metastatic Tumor Cells as a Novel Therapy for Breast Cancer Brain Metastasis.”  This innovative project explores the concept that breast cancer cells that spread to the brain actually co-opt brain-specific patterns of metabolism, providing them with a survival advantage in their new micro-environment.  Understanding these metabolic patterns may reveal new therapeutic targets to combat brain metastasis.  Dr. Karen Cowden Dahl, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Indiana University School of Medicine-South Bend, was awarded a grant from the DOD Ovarian Cancer Research Program to support her project entitled, “ARID3B Induces CD133-Mediated Homing to the Ovarian Cancer Metastatic Niche.”  This funding supports pioneering investigation of the role of ovarian cancer stem cells in metastatic spreading.  Evaluation of ARID3B expression in tumors from newly diagnosed women with ovarian cancer may help to predict which patients are more likely to develop metastatic disease.  This award also includes support for a Teal Scholar post-doctoral fellow.  Both investigators received seed funding from HCRI pilot programs supported by Walther Cancer Foundation to obtain key data for their successful DOD grants.  In addition to the achievements of individual investigators like Siyuan and Karen, the Harper was awarded an American Cancer Society (ACS) Institutional Research Grant (IRG), a rare honor for a small and emerging Institute like HCRI.   This prestigious 3-year award enables our Institute to hold an annual internal competition to identify and support the most promising pilot research projects proposed by junior investigators.  With pilot data in hand, these young faculty will be more competitive in the national funding arena.

Beyond academic achievements, we are increasingly appreciating opportunities to collaborate within our local community to raise awareness of the importance of cancer screening, cancer education and cancer research.  At the fall ND vs UNC football ‘cancer’ game we staffed a large tent just north of the stadium with our interns and volunteers to distribute information.  If you strolled through campus that afternoon, you may have noticed the huge pink fire truck donated for the day by the Clay Fire Department and the local Pink Survivors group.  Breast cancer survivors were encouraged to sign the truck and don bright pink firefighter gear for photos.  During the week leading up to this game, a giant inflatable slide was placed in the center of campus encouraging students and other passersby to “like” the HCRI on Facebook (  One of our new friends was Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves, and his exuberant descent is captured on our Facebook page – be sure to check it out!  We also worked with RiverBend Cancer Services, a community-based cancer survivors support organization, to co-sponsor their annual Breakthrough informational forum in October.  Excitement spread with news of cancer research advancements, and tears were shed from stories shared among cancer survivors and those currently in the midst of the fight.  Meg Brown, former Texas Longhorn basketball player, author and cancer survivor, was the fabulous keynote speaker who shared her very personal life and death battle with cancer and her keys to emotional survival.

As always, we welcome the opportunity to show off the Harper and our research to visitors from campus and beyond.  In 2014 we put Coach Brey to work in the laboratories and Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick enjoyed a rather lengthy introduction to HCRI (once I get going, it’s hard to stop!).  I hope that you can visit us in 2015 to learn more about the amazing and inspiring work of our faculty, trainees and staff.  And be sure to mark your calendars for our Fourth Annual HCRI Research Day, April 13, 2015.