Reinventing what it means to have cancer

Sanford Health's Dr. Paola Vermeer’s path to innovation.

By: Ashley Schwab .

Sanford Health Dr. Paola Vermeer in her lab at Sanford Research
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While many patients may not know her by name, Paola Vermeer, Ph.D., principal investigator and assistant scientist at Sanford Health, spends every day helping patients behind the scenes. As a researcher studying head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, she is trying to better understand the process behind metastatic cancer, and this has led to her becoming an early-stage inventor.

Metastatic cancer is when a cancer spreads from its primary location to a new area of the body. Yet, little is understood about the mechanisms causing metastasis, despite it being the main cause of death in patients with solid cancer tumors. Dr. Vermeer has concentrated on learning how tumor cells change themselves as well as their environment during the metastasis process.

Comprehending metastatic cancer

Cancer cells rely on the healthy cells and environment around them. They can reroute blood vessels, prevent an immune response and, sometimes, establish a connection with the nervous system. And, this nervous system connection may promote the spread of cancer.

“When I first found out there were nerves in tumors, I was like, ‘Wow!’ Because that just brings another element into cancer research that I didn’t even know was there,” Dr. Vermeer says. “Clinically, scientists have known this for a long time, but patients with highly innervated tumors do worse -– a lot worse -– than those that have less innervated disease. So that was the basis of starting this project: can we understand the process so that we can stop this from happening? Because then by default, patients will do better.”

Helping patients truly live

Currently, Dr. Vermeer is in the early bench, or basic laboratory research, stages. But, her ultimate goal is to one day develop new therapeutic interventions and approaches to clinical trials.

“My vision as a scientist has always been translational, which means you take everything that you learn from the bench, which is the very basic molecular things that we study and learn, and the vision is to bring that full circle to the clinic. And so that’s what my lab is: very translational, always with an eye of what have we learned, how can we help patients with this,” explains Dr. Vermeer.

“Because head and neck cancers are cancers in your oral cavity, you may become unable to speak. You may become unable to drink, swallow, eat, all these things that, as human beings, are much of our social interactions that occur around the dining room table or when you talk to people. That gets very, very much compromised for head and neck cancer patients. And, that’s one of the reasons we focus on the disease because we have to do better. We have to do better for these patients.”

The projects in the Vermeer lab are all parts of Sanford Health’s larger goal of making cancer patients into cancer survivors. Through every step, her team is working for each patient.

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