Meet the cancer researcher who’s reducing animal testing

Pilar de la Puente's work has far-reaching uses in the fight against cancer.

Make no mistake, research scientist Pilar de la Puente wants to change the world.

Her resolve is convincing and her research is encouraging. She takes that resolve with her every day to the De La Puente lab at Sanford Research, where she and her team focus on the role of tumor microenvironment in cancer progression, drug resistance and cancer immunology.

Specifically, the lab is developing personalized three-dimensional models that more accurately mimic cell interactions than the two-dimensional counterparts traditionally used in research.

Through creation of these 3-D models, de la Puente hopes to provide better insight into the role of tumor microenvironment, increasingly cited as a battleground in the fight against cancer.

Her efforts were recognized with a Lush Prize in 2018, annually given to someone whose work has played a role in the reduction of product safety testing on animals. She was the first person from Spain to earn the award. Perhaps more importantly, her research is recognized by her colleagues on an everyday basis.

“Her work has impacted a lot of us already,” said assistant scientist Randy Faustino, of the Genomics and Genetics research group at the Sanford facility. “A lot the things that we do have benefited from her approach to different things. The things I do have benefited directly from what she’s been able to provide with cultures and collaborative projects.”

Finding a new way

In her lab coat, hovering over possible advancements in cancer treatment, this native of Leon, Spain, who is also the mother of two young daughters, is closer to the future than most of us.

That is by choice much more than chance.

“In the beginning I wanted to study medicine, but then I would not be able to change things,” de la Puente said. “I would be in contact with patients and trying to help them but I would not be able to change the ways we try to help them.”

So after thinking it over and talking with a respected professor, she aimed her studies toward biology and engineering.

Instead of becoming a physician she would dig into ways of improving medicine. That is, play a role in health care where the goal is to supply the world with better tools in treating cancer.

“I’ve always been inspired to change things — what happens if I change this, or I move that?” de la Puente said. “I did biomedical engineer training for my post-doc so I could approach change from a biological perspective. And why cancer? Because I have lost family due to cancer diseases.”

She’s become a motivated and innovative soldier in that fight. When people ask her what she’s working on, she can now start with “I’m studying cancer.”

“When I tell them that, they always have a personal story to tell you,” de la Puente said. “That drives me and motivates me every day to be doing something where I can help so many people.”

A world of potential

Yes, at the De La Puente lab they’re looking for ways to better gather information about cancer. But much more specifically they want to create a model that can provide better insight into treatment for individual patients.

“We cure cancer every day in the lab. But when we go to the patients, we are failing. So what is wrong?" Pilar de la Puente, Sanford Research scientist

She is working on find out. At the core is the three-dimensional model that is created with an individual patient’s own cells.

“The idea is that if we can put the cells from the tumor back into this gel that has all the cytokines and everything from the patient, we can regulate better the microenvironment that these cells form,” de la Puente explained.

“And therefore study better their progression. How are they are resistant to therapies? How do you overcome those resistances? This would be with a personalized medicine approach where everything is from the single patient that we want to study.”

It may someday give patients a better chance at recovery by giving doctors more specific information more quickly about the most effective treatment options.

“If we could pick the best therapy right at the beginning, we might really get a better chance for patients with cancer,” de la Puente said. “They will be able to tell which therapy will be the best option for them at that specific time of the disease.”

de la Puente growing up in Spain

Pilar’s father was an electrician for a hydraulics factory prior to retiring. Her mother worked at a small store similar to Macy’s. Neither had a college degree.

Leon, a city of a little less than 130,000 people in northwestern Spain, where her parents still live, is more famous for its tapas than its scientists.

That doesn’t mean, in de la Puente’s case, that you have to choose one or the other.

“I loved that from where I lived in Leon, that everything is close enough so you can walk there,” she said. “You could meet your friends along the way and you’d all go out for tapas.”

De la Puente referred to it as “the culture of tapas.”  It’s not just a renowned plate of appetizers; it’s a lifestyle in her hometown.

“You order a small beer or something non-alcoholic, maybe just a Coke, and take your tapas and talk for a while about the problems of the day,” de la Puente said. “We’d get together and fix the world for an hour or so and then we’d all go home for the night.”

She is a huge soccer fan, something that a move to Sioux Falls in June of 2018 has done nothing to diminish. Her previous stop in the United States — she was at Washington University in St. Louis for five years — did nothing to prepare her for a South Dakota winter, however.

What’s a snowblower?

In hindsight, perhaps research from the researcher was in order.

“I think this winter was a little bit not normal from what I’ve heard from other people,” she said. “So we struggled a bit. I have to tell you the truth, we didn’t even know what a snowblower was.”

You moved to South Dakota and had never heard of a snowblower?

“We went to the neighbor and asked how does this thing work?” she said. “We wanted to borrow it. You know, I lived in Spain. I didn’t believe I’d ever need one or even know that it existed. Then suddenly, we need it. I move in and my neighbors were like ‘You need to buy one.’ I was like ‘What? What do I need to buy? Can you show me a picture of what it looks like?’”

It is an adventure delivered with typical light-heartedness from de la Puente, who in her short time within the Sanford community has been a bright light in pushing along research and being fun to be around.

“Not only is she a brilliant scientist, she’s a wonderful person to work with,”  Faustino said. “She encourages that balanced feel. I don’t think it’s just this field but every field where people put their noses to the grindstone. Having the ability to look up once in a while and take a breath of fresh air is very good.”

Family strength

De la Puente’s husband Jose and daughters Abigail and Arizona are definitely in their own way part of the lab team. Jose’s assistance with child care — Abigail is going to be three this summer and Arizona is five months — has been a necessity.

“I’ve handled it well because I’ve had the help of my husband,” de la Puente said. “It saves my life most of the time. We make a good team together.”

She laughs when talking about the children. Abigail is strong-willed “like her momma” de la Puente said. And Arizona is very good-natured, though she still wakes up in the middle of the night.

“They give me strength,” she said. “Maybe I come home after an idea or project didn’t turn out quite the way I wanted and they look at you and you’re thinking ‘Okay, let’s try again tomorrow. This is going to work out.’ And then when it does work out, you have someone to celebrate with.”

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Posted In Cancer, Faces of Sanford Health, Innovations, Research

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