Upstate ‘Peds Pals’ enjoy a special day at Paige’s Butterfly Run

SUNY Upstate

"Little Pal" Eliza Juma, center, with graduate assistant Heather Potts, left, and Upstate medical student Kethia Eliezer, right, at Paige's Butterfly Run in Syracuse. Kethia said the best parts of the event were hanging out with Eliza and introducing her to friends along the course.

Medical students in Upstate’s “Peds Pals” program raised more than $400 at Paige’s Butterfly Run this month, but their efforts brought even greater rewards.

Two “little pals” and five “big pals” took part in the annual event named for Paige Arnold, an 8-year-old who died of cancer 21 years ago.

Her parents started the Butterfly Run in 1997, and it now generates more than $200,000 each year for Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital. Paige’s has raised more than $2 million overall for treatment, research and family assistance.

“Peds Pals” matches Upstate medical students with young patients at the Waters Center for Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders, and is funded by Paige’s Butterfly Run.

“This is the first year they have had a team, but several of the big pals ran the 5K last year,” said Kristi Griffin, Education Specialist at the Waters Center. “Paige’s donates over $20,000 for my Champions Again Fund that includes Peds Pals. This fund is also used for support for neuropsychological evaluations and educational advocacy for our patients.”

Medical students Gabby Izzo, Joe DeMari, Kethia Eliezer and Victoria Fairchild (Peds Pal team organizer) took part in Paige’s Butterfly Run, as did Griffin’s graduate assistant, Heather Potts.

SUNY Upstate

Connor Licamele

Gabby, Joe and Kethia shared their thoughts on sharing the event with their “little pals.”

“To me, taking part in Paige’s Butterfly Run is a chance to give back to and to stay involved with the SUNY Upstate Medical University community,” said Kethia, who walked the 3K with little pal Eliza Juma. “I explained to Eliza what the walk was all about and what it meant. She just smiled and said, ‘OK.’ She is a girl of few words and it was her first time ever participating in something like that, but I saw how excited she was to be part of it and be around all those people.”

Gabby and Joe composed the following after running the 3K with little pal Connor Licamele:

“Paige’s Butterfly Run is about honoring the children who have had to endure the fight against pediatric cancer.  The opportunity to participate in the race with Connor, the survivor we have grown to know and love, was truly a special experience for both of us.  Although in the past Connor would walk the race with his loved ones, this year he decided he wanted to run.

“Words cannot express how excited Connor was to run the race, and we were equally thrilled that he wanted to run it with us, his Peds Pals.  As we neared the finish line, we decided that we would sprint to the end.  Connor got tired but he didn’t give up; with his eyes closed, he could not have been more determined to finish.  As we crossed the finish line, Connor’s tongue out and breathing hard, he broke into a huge smile and we could tell how accomplished he felt having run the whole race.

“Connor’s determination to run was not unlike his determination to beat cancer, and we were so honored to have been able to participate in Paige’s run with such a wonderful and inspiring young man.”

SUNY Upstate

Upstate medical students Gabby Izzo and Joe DeMari flank "Little Pal" Connor Licamele at Paige's Butterfly Run June 6.


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Upstate graduate students benefit from ‘Six Weeks’ program

SUNY Upstate College of Graduate Studies

Upstate graduate student Angelina Regua: "I love research, the whole aspect of asking questions and taking time to find answers. I could do this forever."

Each summer, soon after a new cohort of students in Upstate’s College of Graduate Studies arrives, they can count on help from fellow students like Angelina Regua.

Angelina, who just finished her second year in the Biochemistry & Molecular Biology program, was a student panelist on “Six Weeks to Success,” a series of discussions designed to help new students get off to a strong start.

They meet once a week for six successive weeks with faculty and second-year students. The discussions cover a wide range of topics (including critical reading skills, bioethics and preparing for qualifying exams) and address common questions among first-year graduate students.

“I had a lot of questions about lab rotations, how to choose a Principal Investigator (mentor), research, social life,” Angelina said. “It really helped answer a lot of that. We had access to PIs and students who had gone through it the year before. I felt like I was talking to friends.”

Mark Schmitt, PhD, Dean of the College of Graduate Studies, said students often feel overwhelmed when they first get here, “and the first week of orientation is so packed they rarely remember much.”

“Six Weeks to Success” came out of a mentoring retreat, Dr. Schmitt said, with the idea of meeting with the students and discussing various critical topics once a week after their arrival on campus.

“Student feedback has been excellent and has helped us to keep modifying and improving it,” Dr. Schmitt said.

SUNY Upstate

Angelina Regua outside Weiskotten.

Indeed, after six weeks her first year, Angelina felt at ease. “It helped calm me down a lot,” she said. “I wasn’t worried so much, and I could focus on school.”

As a second-year student on the “Six Weeks” panel, Angelina could relate to the new students’ concerns because her own experience was so fresh. “It’s a great idea to have second-year students on the panel,” she said.

Upstate’s size and atmosphere help new arrivals as well.

“It’s a very cooperative institution,” Angelina said. “I know most of the grad students here.”

Angelina said she considered going to medical school, but that changed the summer after her junior year at Molloy College, a small school near her home on Long Island.

“I had an internship at a prestigious lab (Cold Springs Harbor), and the first time I sat down at the bench, I knew this is what I want to do,” she said.

Angelina’s research with her PI, Leszek Kotula, MD, PhD, focuses on breast cancer, particularly the role of a protein, Abi1, that may promote a highly invasive phenotype. That role as a cancer-causing agent is the opposite of what Abi1 has been shown to do in the prostate, where it may be a tumor suppressor.

“I love research, the whole aspect of asking questions and taking time to find answers,” Angelina said. “I could do this forever.”


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MD/PhD student receives fellowship from Autism Speaks

SUNY Upstate autism research

Dan Tylee, an MD/PhD student at Upstate, received a two-year, pre-doctoral fellowship from Autism Speaks to further research into Autism Spectrum Disorder. The fellowship is worth $30,000 annually.

Dan Tylee is clear on why he enrolled in Upstate’s MD/PhD program.

“I came here because I’m interested in mental health and human development,” he said. “I wanted to be as close to human subjects and applied translational research as possible.”

Dan recently received a two-year, pre-doctoral fellowship from Autism Speaks that carries an annual $30,000 award covering his stipend and additional expenses.

Autism, and Autism Spectrum Disorder, are terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development, according to Autism Speaks. The disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication, and by repetitive behaviors.

“Different sets of genetic factors may contribute to autism in different individuals,” Dan said. “Yet very few studies actually attempt to identify or model genetic subgroups within autism. I think what made my proposal stand out was the design, which explicitly seeks to identify and model these subgroups.”

Dan is beginning his fourth year at Upstate and is a student in the lab of Stephen Glatt, PhD, associate professor of Neuroscience & Physiology, and Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences.

His interest in mental health and the link between biology and psychology intensified when he volunteered at a psychiatric clinic near his home on Long Island. Dan noticed that patients under treatment for mental illness might be prescribed different medications over the course of three or four visits.

“I shadowed a psychiatrist, and I wondered why a certain medication might help one person, but might provide no benefit for another person,” he said. Rather than rely on trial and error, Dan believes “a biologically based diagnosis can shorten the gap to effective treatment.”

SUNY Upstate autism

Dan Tylee in Upstate's Neuroscience Research Building.

That shadowing experience, and the questions it raised, brought him to Upstate. “From psychology to biology, should I study it or treat it?” Dan said of his post-graduate path. “I decided to do both if I could.”

The MD/PhD program, which trains students for careers as physician-scientists who blend clinical practice with research, was a perfect fit.

The majority of Dan’s work in Dr. Glatt’s lab will involve autism, but he’ll also contribute to studies of post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is one of six major mental illnesses his lab is investigating, and many of these disorders appear to share common genetic risk factors, Dan said. The others are schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

“We’re looking at all these disorders to try to identify genetic factors associated with resilience,” Dan said. “Other researchers have shown these disorders share a portion of genetic liability. We’ll look at healthy people with the high-risk genetic factor and try to see how they keep from developing symptoms.

“In the future it’s going to be important to move past a categorical understanding of these disorders, in order to study core symptoms,” Dan said, noting that some types of symptoms, like impulsivity, are a prominent feature of several different disorders.

The Autism Speaks fellowship will allow Dan to pursue three major aims:

1. Identify genetically based subgroups in Autism Spectrum Disorder, using computers to find clustering that best fits the data set.

2. Develop classifiers from genetic data to distinguish people with autism from those who don’t. (Knowing that early intervention programs help those diagnosed on the spectrum, a genetic test might help diagnose quicker and close the gap to treatment.)

3. Identify genetic factors that might protect against the development of autism in individuals with “high genetic loading.”

“This is a really cool time to be in psychiatry,” Dan said. “In the next 20 years, I think we will see new treatments that seek to augment the body’s immune and inflammatory responses in ways to improve symptoms and alter the disease course.”

Six things to know about Dan Tylee:

  • He listens to music while exercising, working in the lab and to elevate his mood – he prefers instrumental numbers. “Words get in the way,” he said. “The emotion comes across in the music.”
  • He coordinated and spoke at a 2012 TEDx community-building event in Rochester.
  • He helped run a neuro-anatomy lab at the University of Rochester Medical Center for two years.
  • His interests include Eastern religion, mindfulness and the writings of spiritualist Eckhart Tolle; he hopes to incorporate those into his clinical practice.
  • He’s from Long Island, and graduated from SUNY Geneseo in 2010 with a degree in psychology.
  • He’s very happy at Upstate. “I love what I’m doing here,” he said.
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Upstate student part of unique approach to cancer research

SUNY Upstate cancer research

Adam Blanden, an Upstate MD/PhD student in the lab of Stewart Loh, PhD, is among researchers involved in a "fundamentally new way" of approaching a potential treatment for cancer.

Anyone watching Adam Blanden during his presentation at Upstate’s Student Research Day 2015 knew he had so much more to say than he could squeeze into his allotted 15 minutes.

Even with that time limit, Adam made it clear he’s working on some exciting cancer research.

He’s a fourth-year MD/PhD student in his second year in the lab of Principal Investigator Stewart Loh, PhD, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Loh’s lab is working on a unique approach to cancer research, one that involves exploring mutations in the protein p53 – a tumor suppressor that, when mutated, is implicated in about half of human cancers.

“We work with a particular class of p53 mutations,” Adam said. “There are lots of ways p53 can go wrong, and one way is the loss of zinc.”

Adam’s work involves restoring proper zinc binding to several zinc-impaired mutations in p53, including the most common mutation that leads to cancers.

“This is a fundamentally new way to approach the problem,” Adam said. “We’re trying to change the environment of the cell so that even if p53 is defective, it can still function. It’s a complete end-around.”

The traditional approach, Adam said, has been to try to find molecular compounds that restore the activity of the mutated p53 by binding to it and “fixing” it. Those attempts have been unsuccessful.

For decades, cancer researchers have focused on the tissue of origin, such as the breast, lung, brain, skin, etc. “Now we are learning it’s not so much where the cancer comes from, but the mutations that cause each individual to develop cancer, and allow that cancer to progress,” Adam said.

Upstate’s Dr. Loh and his collaborators at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey have discovered a new class of experimental cancer drugs that can reactivate mutant p53.

The research has potential widespread clinical application for many forms of cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates 1.65 million people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and 589,000 people will die of the disease.

Adam estimates a treatment that emerges from this research could work for as many as 100,000 cancer patients per year.

Here’s how treatment could proceed, if the Loh lab’s research leads to an approved protocol after the required clinical trials:

A patient who is diagnosed with cancer undergoes a biopsy; genetic sequencing is done on the patient’s p53 protein to determine if the p53 has mutated, and how; if the particular mutation is one that can be reactivated by restoring zinc binding, treatment begins.

A safe and effective treatment is likely still a decade away, but Adam is optimistic.

“We know from our internal, unpublished work that our pre-clinical data look pretty solid,” he said.

SUNY Upstate p53 cancer research

Upstate student Adam Blanden

Six things to know about Adam Blanden:

* He’s from Truxton, New York, south of Syracuse.

* He finished his undergraduate requirements at Binghamton University in three years, then did independent study (of photodynamic therapy cancer treatment) at Harvard Medical School.

* At Binghamton, he was awarded a prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship for math, science and engineering students.

* He met his wife, Melanie, at Harvard; they’ve been married almost four years.

* He and Melanie, a PhD student in chemistry at Syracuse University, are expecting their first child.

* He was awarded the College of Graduate Studies’ “Oral Presentation Award” for 2015.

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