Rutherford’s CGI gets up close and personal about cancer

Published on: Thursday, July 31st, 2014 View all Articles

By Kelly Nicholaides — Staff Writer, South Berganite

Employees at Cancer Genetics, Inc., are on the cutting edge of developing cancer tests, and many employees have personal stories of their own cancers and those of family members who have battled the cancers the company addresses.

PHOTO COURTESY/CANCER GENETICS, INC. Employees at Cancer Genetics, Inc., are on the cutting edge of developing cancer tests, and many employees have personal stories of their own cancers and those of family members who have battled the cancers the company addresses.

Cancer Genetics, Inc., a DNA-based cancer diagnostics company that researches cancer tests and has five patents for hematological, kidney, renal and cervical cancer tests, is in a unique position to have several employees who are fighting cancer or have family members who battled the disease.

For Jane Houldsworth, CGI’s vice president of research and development, after 20 years of working in the field, the pioneering cancer researcher was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma (FL) with diffuse large B-cell lymphone (DLBCL). Diagnosed in 2010, Houldsworth started treatment immediately. Approximately 40-50 percent of FL cases transform into DLBCL, which is treated with Rituximab – a drug that has revolutionized treatment of DLBCL.

“I felt a lump in my neck that didn’t go down,” Houldsworth said. “I knew it wasn’t something that I had done, as it’s just the luck of the draw, although there could be [cancer] incidents where people were exposed to insecticides and pesticides.”

She got a fine needle aspirate, a CAT scan, PET scan and biopsy before going through seven rounds of treatment, four cycles every two weeks. “My first treatment was chemo, and then I took my daughter for her driver’s test. Some days, I slept on the living room floor and could barely walk to the bathroom,” Houldsworth said.

At Sloan-Kettering, she played “chemo bingo” with other patients and acted as an Arabic translator [her husband is Egyptian] as the group bonded.

Houldsworth’s research in hematological cancer was instrumental in the development of CGI’s trademarked MatBA (mature B-cell neoplasm array) of diagnostic tests to assist in disease management and treatment decisions.

Now in remission, she has a 50 percent chance of relapse in FL within seven years. Regardless, she notes that the key to beating cancer is finding the treatment tailored to one’s genetics.

“We have germ line changes and somatic cells, and we specialize in somatic cell changes,” Houldsworth said. “It’s not just about the treatment you get but how and when you treat it and how the patient is managed. You want a broad panel of tests to help doctors make decisions about your care, learn how to develop and integrate all these results. My goal as a researcher is to come back and develop a larger panel of tests available. I look at data every day. It’s about how you look at genetic alteration and personalize treatment more.”

Minimally invasive tests such as liquid [blood] biopsies are being developed, she said.

CGI celebrates National Cancer Survivor Month with a digital media project highlighting the stories of CGI employees and their loved ones who have battled the disease. The #SurvivorStory project features video interviews with employees who speak about how a diagnosis of cancer has inspired their work at CGI, where they are working to revolutionize the way cancer is diagnosed and treated through comprehensive, proprietary cancer tests and laboratory services.

“All of our employees are deeply committed to their work,” said Panna Sharma, CGI’s CEO, “but the personal diagnosis of cancer – or the diagnosis of a family member – brings a sense of urgency to what some of our employees do every day. These employees know what a difference improved cancer diagnosis and treatment can make.”

CGI’s #SurvivorStory initiative will feature videos from more than 10 employees holding a range of positions at the company.

Probe technician Natali Gomez’s father-in-law also had DLBCL, diagnosed two years ago when he was 65. “It was during a routine physical, and there was a mass on his inner thigh. He did six weeks of chemo and six to eight weeks of radiation. He’s now in remission,” Gomez said. “I had just found out I was pregnant with his first granddaughter. You don’t know the prognosis, so it’s an inspiration for me to work in here. It’s rewarding and fulfilling contributing to society.”

The probe department deals with the manufacture of fish probe tools for peripheral blood samples. “We receive and make slides for patients, and do hybridization. On a typical day, we validate probes and get DNA labels for and make probes for different genes, four sections of chromosome labels. Cancer is evolving faster than research but our DNA is also changing. We’re getting better at targeting therapies, and treatment has improved, life expectancy longer.”

Banumathy Gowrishankar, Ph.D., is a principal research scientist whose father died of lung cancer 15 years ago. “If his cancer was diagnosed at an early stage, maybe we could have saved his life. That’s the inspiration for me to work here. At Cancer Genetics, we are all working together as a team to give molecular-based information about a cancer. We try and help the clinicians to diagnose the cancer at an early stage, to predict its prognosis, as well as to guide appropriate treatment options for the patients. I think relationships are so precious that we should not lose them for cancer.”

Gowrishankar notes that she learned more about how cells work during her father’s cancer battle. “I was doing my master’s at the time, and the sad thing was he didn’t know until the last week of his life. He was in the hospital with back pain,” Gowrishankar said. “I know cancer can have no symptoms. I thought maybe he had an infection, as they were more common in India. Then a lung tap test revealed he had late-stage lung cancer that had spread to the liver. He was given three to six months survival, was extremely weak.”

CGI’s marketing associate Alison Burchett lost her mom to pancreatic cancer when she was 49. Her father is a three-time colon cancer survivor. “He had it three times, around once every 20 years. He got it at 35, 56 and 76 years old. Now he’s 81 and he’s a survivor,” Burchett said. “All cancers involved changes in your DNA. There are germ line changes and somatic cell changes. We specialize in [researching] somatic changes.”

Her mother dealt with pancreatic cancer and died within six months of diagnosis. “She had symptoms like yellow, itchy skin, dark urine, vomiting, but mom never took off of work,” Burchett says, noting that her mother encouraged her to continue her education.

The survivor project also features videos from employees at Bioserve India, a premier genomics and next-generation sequencing company based in Hyderabad, India, which CGI recently acquired. The company invites people to share their #SurvivorStories by tweeting them directly @Cancer_Genetics or sharing them on Facebook at cancergenetics.


Article originally published by South Bergenite. View Article