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October 2007 Issue

Advocate Debbie Rauh, of the Breast Cancer Alliance, views breast cancer cells under a microscope during the advocate training session.
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Advocates Learn the 'Ins and Outs' of Cancer Research

By Amanda Harper
Published October 2007

Science is full of jargon, so understanding and communicating important medical research findings to a lay audience can be a daunting task—especially if that audience includes volunteers with no medical background.

The Breast Cancer Alliance of Greater Cincinnati (BCA) and Cincinnati Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Center (BCERC) recently conducted a hands-on research training session to help breast cancer advocates decipher what scientists mean when they talk about statistical analysis, immunochemistry, “whole mounting” tissue samples and an array of other scientific concepts and procedures. 

The half-day program took place Aug. 18 at UC’s Genome Research Institute. Called ART– Advocate Research Training, the program was made possible by an award from the National Breast Cancer Coalition

Fund to the BCA for expanding advocacy and research training activities.

The BCA has been a community partner with the Cincinnati BCERC since before it was established in 2003. The Cincinnati BCERC—one of only four such centers in the nation—is a joint research and public education effort between the UC College of Medicine, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and breast cancer advocates.

The BCERC’s work focuses on potential links between environmental factors, puberty and breast cancer, and on educating the community about its findings. The center is funded by a seven-year grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences  and the National Cancer Institute.

“The more knowledgeable advocates are about biologic, clinical and population-based research methods, the better we all can fulfill the objectives of the BCERC research agenda and inform subsequent programs that may follow,” says Kathryn Brown, PhD, director of the Cincinnati BCERC community outreach core.

“There are courses offered nationally that give advocates basic education in science and research, but we’ve found that barriers exist and advocates often can’t attend these national courses due to cost, time away from work and family, and a feeling of intimidation,” adds advocate Ann Hernick, who—along with Kathy Ball—was instrumental in organizing the local training program.

Hernick says the primary objective of the session was to reduce some of these barriers by offering a local science course that could be completed in a half-day at no cost.

“Our hope is that the training the advocates received will give them the confidence they need to become more involved with our research and continue their training and education by taking a national course,” she adds.

During the session, advocates went back to the basics of science—learning about forming a hypothesis and how scientific studies and experiments are designed and conducted. They also received hands-on laboratory training, including learning to use a pipette and examine breast cancer cells through a microscope.

Wendy Anderson, a breast cancer survivor who has been a BCERC study helper volunteer for three years, says the course was a great refresher.

“Understanding at least the fundamentals is important to breast cancer survivors and advocates because we are bombarded with information—and misinformation—on a daily basis,” says Anderson. “This training will help me ask critical questions about research conclusions that are publicized, and think about different research avenues that could be explored in a more effective way.”

At the conclusion of the training session, researchers thanked the BCA for donating a mobile laboratory research bench to the Cincinnati BCERC. The unit—which looks like a large stainless steel kitchen table—will be used as additional work space by Deborah Clegg, PhD, and her research team.

Clegg’s team also recently purchased a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine that allows scientists to study how fatty acids affect gene expression. 

“Knowing how fatty acids influence genes is critical if we want to figure out why some individuals are more susceptible to certain cancers,” explains Clegg, assistant professor of psychiatry at UC.

Other program participants included UC researchers Susan Pinney, PhD, Stephen Benoit, PhD, and Ron Jandacek, PhD, and lab specialists Robin Gear, Holly Hendrix and Meeta Misty.

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