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Increasing Awareness Around Cancer Research

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Alyssa Hurst

Howard Halpern

Howard Halpern discusses his research around cancer during the annual Tooley Lecture.

When you look in the mirror, the face you see may appear the same as always, but in truth, it is made of completely new material from what it was less than a month ago.

That’s more than a fun fact — it’s a crucial lens through which we view and treat cancer. And at the May 16 Dale Tooley Cancer Research Lecture, sponsored by DU’s Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, an audience of students, faculty and staff got a peek through that lens, courtesy of Howard J. Halpern, director of the NIH Center for EPR Imaging in Vivo Physiology and a professor in the Department of Radiation and Cellular Oncology at the University of Chicago.

Halpern’s lecture — “Cancer: Treating the Loss of Control” — distilled his deeply complex work to illuminate the mechanisms of cancer and provide a direction forward.

Halpern’s lecture — “Cancer: Treating the Loss of Control” — distilled his deeply complex work to illuminate the mechanisms of cancer and provide a direction forward.

“[Cancer] has to be understood in the context of a healthy organism,” Halpern told the crowd assembled in the Sie Complex’s Maglione Hall. “We are multicellular. A 70-kilogram human being has 100 trillion cells, and the orchestration that is us, to me, is a miracle.” That miracle, Halpern explained, is the body’s diverse, detailed and largely successful renewal process — the process that builds a new face for each of us every month.

Despite the careful self-maintenance our bodies quietly conduct as we go about our everyday lives, perfection is often unattainable. “Half of the first-world population will get cancer. One quarter will die from it,” Halpern said. “Only one surviving cancer cell is necessary to go on to become cancer.”

Halpern’s expertise in cancer landed him an invitation to speak at the second annual Tooley Lecture, created, as Natural Sciences and Mathematics Dean Andrei Kutateladze noted, to share cutting-edge knowledge about the ultimate villain with DU’s scientific community. “Cancer is one of the great biomedical challenges of the 21st century. We are fortunate that so many friends of Dale Tooley gave money to endow the Dale Tooley Cancer Research Lecture Series, which allows for bringing great minds in cancer research to the DU campus to give their perspectives and share the latest, state-of-the-art results from their research labs, cancer centers and clinics,” said Kutateladze.

Halpern is elbow-deep in research aimed at improving the way hospitals administer radiation treatments in cancer patients. His research employs electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR), an imaging technique that could allow doctors to measure the oxygen concentration in different regions of a tumor. Armed with this information, physicians can sculpt their doses of radiation, delivering more to hypoxic areas, which are more resistant to radiation, and sparing more healthy tissue.

Sandra and Gareth Eaton
Sandra and Gareth Eaton work with students in DU's EPR Center.

Right now, Halpern is using this new form of imaging to treat tumors in mice, an endeavor facilitated by a decades-long partnership with DU’s EPR Center, headed by professors Sandra and Gareth Eaton of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. With the help of two engineers and five graduate students, the lab produces instrumentation and methodology, including a mouse-sized imaging device, that help make Halpern’s work possible.

Sandra Eaton identified the Tooley Lecture as a great way to introduce students to the possibilities of science and the magnitude of work taking place at DU. One student, Eaton noted, left the Tooley lecture, his first, wowed by the experience. “He saw the notice and came, and was just bug-eyed,” she said.

The lecture also serves the public good. By sharing crucial information from the frontiers of science, the Tooley lecture can empower people to make informed decisions. “Almost everyone at some point in their lifetime is going to have a family member or a friend who is affected by cancer,” Eaton said. “The more they have a general understanding, the more likely they are to ask good questions about treatment.”