INDIANAPOLIS – Pink has become the internationally recognized symbol for breast cancer awareness, but the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer Research Laboratories arent as drenched in pink as one might expect.
The pink lettering outside the labs doors and a few unobtrusive signs are the only pretty packaging to suggest the nature of the labs research.
But pink – in particular, the pink ribbons festooning Fort Wayne during the Vera Bradley Classic golf tournament – helped lure Dr. Linda Malkas to Indianapolis from the University of Maryland in 2001.
That was actually the thing that made me want to come, she said. It was very, very powerful.
Researcher Malkas, the Vera Bradley chair of oncology, and her team have dedicated the past decade to breast cancer research at the Indiana University School of Medicine, and their hard work has paid off.
This month, Fort Wayne-based Vera Bradley Foundation announced a $10 million pledge to the breast cancer program. The pledge is in addition to three previous pledges totaling $10 million the foundation has given to the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center since 1998.
Behind an enormous metal sculpture wall, a Publishers Clearinghouse-style check made out for $10 million leans on an easel outside the labs doors in the IU Simon Cancer Center.
IUs newest and largest research lab occupies about half the center on the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus.
Inside the Vera Bradley Foundation laboratories on a recent weekday morning, Malkas perched on a stool, chatting with another researcher in a white shirt and tie whom she introduces as my beloved Bob.
Beloved Bob is Malkas husband, Dr. Robert J. Hickey to others. Another member of the breast cancer program who is also recognized in the field of ovarian cancer, Hickey was a graduate student in New York when he met Malkas, an undergraduate, in a lab there.
IUs breast cancer program has grown to 34 members from six in 1999. Vera Bradley Foundation funding was directly used to recruit 10 faculty members, including Malkas.
Malkas and Hickey brought their East Coast accents and team members from Baltimore, building the breast cancer program by performing daily experiments, writing papers and continually seeking funding.
Of course, the research receives funding from many sources. But the university said the most recent pledge from Vera Bradley would mean the foundation is the single-largest philanthropic resource for IUs program, support the researchers do not take for granted.
Vera Bradleys support essentially created the breast cancer program in the cancer center, Malkas said.
There would be no breast cancer program, Ill be honest, without Vera Bradley, she said.
The Vera Bradley Foundations first $10 million came over a 10-year period.
Catherine Hill, executive director of the foundation, said the university had asked that the next $10 million pledge be fulfilled in half that time, but the foundation wanted to be sensitive to the current economic situation.
We are hopeful that we will fulfill it within the five years that IU had requested in their proposal, but our fundraising is highly dependent on the economy, Hill said. Our commitment to them is that we will fulfill it as fast as we can.
The proposal specifies that up to $5 million will be for endowments and the other $5 million will support projects by the breast cancer researchers, Hill said.
For the team, the funding cant come soon enough. The labs work is devoted to two areas, according to Malkas: Better detection of breast cancer and creating therapies to treat it.
We are chasing these, big time, she said.
Workers in the lab alternated between bustling energy and focused concentration. Some rushed back and forth between equipment stations; others stared intently at microscopes or computer screens.
The lab was packed but not cluttered, filled with wide black work counters divided by high shelves bearing boxes, tubes and bottles. High-tech microscopes and equipment hinted at why the business of research can be so expensive.
The labs successes mean IU is now the only site in the world testing a potential new therapy that forces breast cancer cells to grow old and die. Patients at the cancer center have been the first to receive new life-extending therapies, and the lab is continually working on new ways to detect breast cancer earlier and more accurately.
One project would allow a simple blood test to be coupled with a mammogram to inexpensively diagnose breast cancer.
Malkas said the accomplishments are a culmination of years of work.
It sounds like its an overnight success, but really its been a long time coming, she said.
Research associate Randy Wireman leaned against a counter watching Hickey analyze slides with dyed specimens of suspected cancers cells. The slides contain hard-to-call cases, those in which doctors arent sure whether cancer is present.
The lab studies these cases and works on ways to make the cancers more identifiable to the pathologists who study specimens on slides.
Hickey placed a slide under an expensive microscope fitted with a camera for documenting the labs research. A dog-eared postcard of the Adirondacks in autumn hung from the shelf above the microscope.
Like many of the researchers, Wireman, who has worked in the lab about 2 1/2 years, has had a close encounter with cancer. The type of breast cancer that necessitated his mothers recent mastectomy is a term thrown around in daily conversation.
I think, Oh, my mom had that, he said. Every day, Im reminded of my mom.
Wireman said his mothers doctor saw what might be cancer – a hard-to-call case just like those specimens the research lab studies. She had another checkup six months later, when she was diagnosed with cancer and her doctor recommended a mastectomy.
Thats why were looking at all these hard-to-call cases, Wireman said. The more information you can give about the stage of cancer, where its at, the better that doctor can treat it.
Down a hallway in another, quieter lab, Dr. Harikrishna Nakshatri, an associate director for education at the IU Simon Cancer Center, wasnt dressed for lab work but for fundraising.
Nakshatri was heading to a dinner in Carmel where he would speak about the research-funding group 100 Voices of Hope. The group was formed when founder Mary Beth Gadus persuaded 100 women to each donate $1,000 to breast cancer program co-director Dr. George W. Sledge Jr.s research through the IU Foundation.
Nakshatri wears many other hats – hes the Marian J. Morrison professor in breast cancer research, a professor of surgery, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology with the IU School of Medicine and a researcher with the IU Simon Cancer Center.
His research focuses on the mechanisms of anti-estrogen resistance and metastasis in breast cancer.
But this day, he planned to spread the good news – and researchers wish lists – to fundraisers, another major part of his job.
Contributions from groups like 100 Voices of Hope can, and have, made a difference in the strides against breast cancer, Nakshatri said.
Over the summer, Nakshatri and his associates announced the development of a breast cancer diagnostic marker to help determine which patients have less aggressive forms of the disease that might not require chemotherapy.
Nakshatri said the researchers are trying to develop a test that would be significantly less expensive than existing methods of diagnosing breast cancer.
Projects like these take years to develop, and during that time Nakshatri, a self-described old-timer, has seen his surroundings change.
By the end of the year, he will have spent 14 years at Indiana University.
It wasnt a bad place 14 years ago, Nakshatri said. But he calls the progress made since phenomenal.
When I first came in here, these were all parking lots, Nakshatri said, gesturing toward the labs gleaming black countertops and stocked shelves. There was nothing here.