First Lady Jill Biden and Queen Letizia of Spain Visit Columbia Cancer Ahead of World Cancer Research Day | Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC)

Columbia cancer researchers, clinicians, community partners and local students gathered in Upper Manhattan today for a visit from First Lady Jill Biden, ED.D.

Queen Letizia of Spain and First Lady Jill Biden
Queen Letizia of Spain and First Lady Jill Biden during the tour at Columbia Cancer (Credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

The First Lady, accompanied by Queen Letizia of Spain, stopped at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) to learn about cutting-edge research at Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) and the center’s collaboration to transform care, improve diversity and access to information in clinical trials and promote diversity and inclusion in science and medicine. The meetings took place at Columbia’s School of Nursing.

Anil K. Rustgi, MD, Director of HICCC and Irving Professor of Medicine at Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S) in Colombia, delivered brief opening remarks to a small audience of media representatives and invited guests. He underscored Columbia’s commitment to research and comprehensive care.

“Our commitment to our patients, families, caregivers and the communities in which they live is paramount and our North Star,” said Dr. Rustgi, who was joined by Katrina Armstrong, MD, Dean of VP&S and CEO of CUIMC, Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University, and Steven J. Corwin, MD, President and CEO of NewYork-Presbyterian.

With the revival of the Biden administration’s Cancer Moonshot and just days before World Cancer Research Day, which occurs on September 24 each year, Drs. Biden and Queen Letizia the importance of patient-centered care and the importance of community and international collaboration in making progress towards a cure.

First Lady Jill Biden discussed HICCC’s ongoing work to address health inequities and reduce barriers to cutting-edge care, including access to cancer clinical trials. She shared the story of Mario Sambula, a patient enrolled in a clinical trial at HICCC, and how his nursing team and clinical trials nurse, Brianne Bodin, BSN, RN, helped guide him every step of the way .

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“It’s stories like [Mario’s]To put patients at the center of their care, which is what makes Columbia Cancer Center so special,” she said. “This cancer center addresses the deep inequalities in care that we have seen far too often. Too many people get left behind when it comes to clinical trials, but this cancer center is changing that.”

Sambula, 85, of Bronx, NY, shared his experience with the First Lady and Queen as part of the Columbia visit. Sambula, who came to the United States from Honduras at the age of 25, was diagnosed with prostate cancer shortly after retiring in 2002 as a fabric tailor in New York City’s Garment District. After his cancer diagnosis, he completed treatment and was feeling fine, but a few years later the cancer returned and had spread. Faced with few treatment options, Sambula enrolled in a cancer clinical trial at Columbia University that stabilized his disease, now four years and counting.

On the Columbia tour, left to right: First Lady Jill Biden and Queen Letizia with Dr. Andy Lassman, Brianne Bodin, Mario Sambula and Dr. Anil Rustgi (Credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

dr Biden and Queen Letizia, who serves as Honorary President of the Spanish Association Against Cancer, share an interest and commitment in the fight against cancer.

“Prevention is more effective than any cure and is the most cost-effective strategy to fight cancer in the long term – prevention, early detection and equity,” said Queen Letizia, who also stressed the benefits of transnational collaboration between doctors and scientists.

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The visit to HICCC included meetings with Colombian cancer researchers leading global collaborations with partnerships in Spain and the Dominican Republic.

Raul Rabadan, PhD, Professor of Systems Biology and Biomedical Informatics at VP&S, spoke about his collaboration with the Spanish National Cancer Research Center (CNIO) to apply computational approaches to identify high-risk factors for pancreatic cancer, a Stand Up-supported project at the Krebs und Lustgarten Foundation . Chin Hur, MD, a professor of medicine who specializes in gastrointestinal cancer screening and prevention, shared details of HICCC’s partnership with several hospitals in the Dominican Republic to address the country’s rising cancer deaths.

The First Lady and Queen also met with Mary Beth Terry, PhD, a professor at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, who heads the Office of Outreach and Engagement at HICCC. dr Terry presented the Cancer Center’s National Cancer Institute-funded YES in THE HEIGHTS program, a summer internship for high school and undergraduate students that aims to increase the pool of underrepresented and underfunded youth entering STEM subjects. Prior to her speech, the First Lady and Queen met with a group of high school and elementary school students from all five boroughs, all of whom have attended YES.

The Queen of Spain and the First Lady meet with Dr. Mary Beth Terry (second from right) and YES in the HEIGHTS students. (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Irving Medical Center at Columbia University)

The issue of under-representation and lack of diversity in clinical trials was another topic of discussion for Dr. Biden and Queen Letizia on their Columbia tour. Speaking to Andrew Lassman, MD, Associate Dean of Clinical Trials at Columbia University and Chief of Neurooncology, they learned about HICCC’s efforts to increase participation of underrepresented groups in clinical trials and among clinical researchers. They discussed the importance of diversity among clinical trial participants as a critical step in reducing racial and ethnic disparities in health.

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Bodin, who serves at Sambula as Nurse Navigator and Oncology Research Nurse Manager in HICCC’s Clinical Trials Office, emphasized the critical role Nurse Navigators play in healthcare and help ensure research at the cancer center is representative of his community.

“Our goal is to make the process of finding and enrolling in a clinical trial as seamless as possible while being a source of the compassionate, human connection that patients need and deserve,” Bodin said.

Today’s visit reflected President Joe Biden’s expansion of Cancer Moonshot, with new goals aimed at reducing the rate of death from cancer by at least 50 percent over the next 25 years and improving the experience of people and their families who living with and surviving cancer.

dr Acknowledging this as an ambitious goal, Biden said: “None of us can beat cancer alone. It takes us all to share our best ideas and practices, work together to ease the burden on patients and their families, and create the kind of care that saves lives… Together we can give our people the future they deserve earn no matter where they call home.”

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