The Ultimate Gift: Selfless tissue donors advance breast cancer research at IU

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Based in Indianapolis, the Susan G. Komen Tissue Bank at the IU Simon Cancer Center is the only normal breast tissue bio-repository of its kind in the world. As such, it is uniquely positioned to characterize the molecular and genetic basis of normal breast development and compare it to the different types of breast cancer.

Research by my colleagues at Indiana University suggest that triple negative breast cancer, an especially aggressive form of the disease, in African American women has greater probability of originating from a population of cells with stem-cell like properties. In Hispanic women, it may originate from an entirely different set of cells. The importance of that finding is that ethnicity-dependent differences in normal breast biology can lead to further discoveries down the road to help us predict breast cancer incidence among different ethnic groups.

My colleagues made that discovery, in part, by using what is considered “normal” – or cancer-free -- breast tissue samples from the bank.

The bank was established expressly for the acquisition of normal tissue from volunteer donors with no clinical evidence of breast disease and/or malignancy, providing a resource to investigators around the globe.

By using samples from women without breast cancer, we researchers will be able to determine the differences between healthy and cancerous tissues. That will lead to a better understanding of the disease.

To my amazement -- and probably to most of the research community -- nearly 4,000 women of all ages and races have selflessly donated a precious piece of themselves to the bank since 2007. In all, more than 10,000 women also have donated DNA and blood.

And in a historic weekend held in conjunction with Super Bowl LXVI in Indianapolis, nearly 700 women donated breast tissue during Indy’s Super Cure. Still, tissue from minority women – especially Asians and Hispanics -- is critically needed, providing us researchers with a diverse sampling. Local Asian and Hispanic women – and women of all ethnicities – can next contribute to the tissue bank during a collection on Saturday, Jan. 23. Call 274-2366 or visit www.komentissuebank.iu.edu to reserve a time.

Why do women donate? They explain in hand-written notes they have penned in pink journals: 

“I wanted to do my part to help rid this horrible disease that has affected so many.”

“I am donating today because I am a firm believer in research and the benefits it could bring.”

“I want to be a part of helping find a cure. It’s so important for the next generation.”

“I’m donating to help find a cure.”

“I hope this research finds a cure so no other family has to experience this loss.”

“I am happy to donate to help in advancing breast cancer research and treatment.”

“If a little time and piece of me can help to save someone’s life, it’s a very low cost with a tremendous reward.”

From the notes left behind, one can see that women donate so that researchers worldwide can make further inroads against the disease. They realize this won’t happen overnight. They realize their actions today will be beneficial tomorrow.

How does it work? During the donation process, a tissue sample is taken from one breast with local anesthesia and a needle. The amount of tissue taken is about one gram (or the size of two peas). A trained surgeon or radiologist performs a core needle biopsy. The samples are processed immediately on-site to ensure consistent and high quality samples.

Beyond Indianapolis, the tissue bank has served as a resource to investigators around the globe. Colleagues from Purdue University, Mayo Clinic, the National Cancer Institute, Yale University, Dartmouth College, Dana-Farber/Harvard University, Breakthrough Research Centre at The Royal Marsden Hospital (UK) and the University of Queensland in Australia have already tapped into the bank for their respective research studies – studies that have been published in about 20 academic, peer-reviewed journals.

None of that would have been possible without the women who have selflessly contributed to research.

I can’t express my gratitude enough to the wives, mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, and others who have given us researchers an invaluable resource. With their help, we’ll continue to make advances against breast cancer.

Anna Maria Storniolo, M.D. is Executive director of the Komen Tissue Bank at IU Simon Cancer Center. She's also a Professor of Clinical Medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

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