Cornell PhD Student Awarded Breast Cancer Coalition Research Grant

ROCHESTER: Three research proposals—one that examines how an antioxidant can help cancer cells thrive, one that explores a possible reason for worse outcomes in Black women with breast cancer, and one that investigates a possible reason for the metastasis (spread) of breast cancer—have been awarded funding by the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester.

“Cancer doesn’t care about COVID-19; cancer doesn’t rest and women and men continue to get diagnosed with breast cancer,” said Holly Anderson, Executive Director of the Breast Cancer Coalition. “But scientists are continuing their research to find a cure for this disease, and the Coalition is proud to support their important work.”

The Coalition annually awards grants to fund innovative new projects with the potential to yield significant medical breakthroughs in the cause and prevention of breast cancer, prevention of metastasis, and cure.  Since 2003, the Coalition has now awarded $951,125 to researchers in Upstate and Western New York. Recipients are selected through a competitive review process. 

This year, the Coalition is supporting two young researchers with a 2020 Pre- and Post-Doctoral Trainees/Fellow GrantMatthew Lee Tan, a fourth-year PhD student at Cornell University, and Dr. Yara Abdou, a Hematology/Oncology Fellow at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, will each receive a grant of $25,000 to support their investigations.

Dr. Isaac Harris, an Assistant Professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Associate Member at Wilmot Cancer Center, has been awarded The Coalition’s 2020 Faculty Grant in the amount of $50,000.

Information about the funded grant proposals and researchers follows:

“Investigating the Role of Metabolism and the Perivascular Niche on Breast Cancer Stem-Like Cell Properties.” – Matthew Lee Tan (pictured above)


Current studies suggest that cancer stem-like cells (CSCs), which have a high invasive potential, may play a role in metastasis. Through his research, Tan has discovered that CSCs consume more glucose and oxygen than non-CSCs, and that the fraction of CSCs can be reduced by blocking glucose metabolism. CSCs are frequently found in perivascular niches, which are regions near blood vessels that can promote stem cell characteristics in CSCs.  The objective of his proposal is to investigate how perivascular niche properties such as endothelial cells and nutrient transport affect CSC characteristics and metabolism. Results of this work will help inform new strategies to target CSCs with the potential to prevent metastasis, lead to new therapeutic approaches, and ultimately improve patient outcomes.


The son of Cambodian immigrants and a first-generation college student, Tan entered a program at the University of Michigan that awarded him Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in biomedical engineering in five years. At Michigan, Tan was named a James B. Angell Scholar for his distinguished academic record. After graduation, he worked as a Research Technologist at Zimmer Biomet Biologics in Indiana before entering the PhD program in biomedical engineering at Cornell University, where he was a GAANN Graduate Teaching Fellow (Graduate Assistant in Areas of National Need).  His PhD research to date has earned Tan a scientific merit award at the National Cancer Institute’s Physical Science-Oncology Network annual meeting. Tan is interested in educating both students and the general public about the importance of engineering tools and strategies in cancer research, and he has become involved in Cornell’s student chapter of the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes.

Investigating Survivin as a new target to improve outcomes of breast cancer in black women." – Dr. Yara Abdou (pictured below)

The survivin protein is found in many cancers, including breast cancer. This protein is often associated with aggressive forms of cancer, which have worse outcomes and respond poorly to treatment. Black women with breast cancer have a 41 percent higher rate of mortality than white women with the disease. Dr. Abdou notes that there have not been any studies on the different roles of survivin in Black women with breast cancer. Her analysis of genomic data provides evidence that Black breast cancer patients may have more survivin protein than white patients. Her study will examine the frequency of survivin and its different subtypes in Black women compared to white women with breast cancer. She will also look at associations between the protein and cancer characteristics and survival outcomes. The goal is to understand the role of survivin in this underserved patient population. The data generated by Dr. Abdou’s research will be used to support new clinical trials to develop more effective therapies and improve outcomes in Black women with breast cancer. 

Dr. Abdou is a board-certified internist and a current hematology/oncology fellow who is pursuing a career as a physician scientist, focusing on research and clinical trials in immunology and immunotherapy that can lead to new breast cancer therapies. After earning her medical degrees at Jordan University of Science and Technology, Dr. Abdou conducted postdoctoral work at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She held a residency in internal medicine at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque before being awarded a fellowship in hematology and oncology at Roswell Park. Her professional honors include the Outstanding Research Award at the University of New Mexico, selection as the Journal of Clinical Oncology’s editorial fellow for 2019, and the Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO Merit Award-ASCO-SITC this year for her contributions to the field of immuno-oncology. Dr. Abdou is a member of several medical and scientific national associations, including the American Medical Association, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer, and the American Association for Cancer Research.

“Uncovering the roles of extracellular glutathione in triple negative breast cancer.” – Dr. Isaac Harris (pictured below)

Antioxidants are promoted as beneficial to all facets of a person’s body. But the Harris Lab has discovered that antioxidants can also help cancer cells. Importantly, they found that triple negative breast cancers (TNBC) rely on antioxidants to survive. They hypothesize that TNBC captures antioxidants in the blood, and uses these resources to grow and survive drugs intended to kill them. The Harris Lab plans to find ways to kill TNBC by blocking the proteins that liberate circulating antioxidants. Also, since antioxidants in the blood can be measured, he plans to create a new way to monitor and detect breast cancer growth and prevent progression. The studies have the potential to benefit patients with TNBC, a particularly aggressive disease with few therapeutic options and a lack of targeted therapies.


Dr. Harris is an Assistant Professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Associate Member at Wilmot Cancer Center whose entire research career has been focused on breast cancer. He holds a B.E. in Chemical Engineering and a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Toronto. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School. In 2019, he joined the faculty of the University of Rochester Medical School. Dr. Harris is an Associate Editor of the journal Cell Death Discovery and has served as a reviewer for numerous journals, including Cancer Research, Cell Reports, Oncogene, and Journal of Experimental Medicine. His honors include a postdoctoral fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research – Breast Cancer Initiative and two Scholar-in-Training Awards from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

About the Breast Cancer Coalition

The Breast Cancer Coalition is a local grassroots organization dedicated to eradicating breast cancer through action and advocacy. It serves men and women. Formally organized as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization in 1997, the Coalition is presently the only full scope independently operated organization focused specifically on serving breast and gynecologic cancer survivors in the Finger Lakes, Central, and Western New York regions.  Its Research Initiative, unusual for a grassroots organization, is an integral, tangible part of the Coalition’s commitment to eradicate breast cancer. The Coalition’s programs are all provided free of charge and include monthly educational seminars, workshops, classes, support groups and programs.

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