Ladies and Gentlemen . . Michele Côté!

michele_coteSome of you may have already heard that our amazing Executive Director, Anna Maria Storniolo, M.D., is semi-retiring from IU, and stepping down from her duties with the Komen Tissue Bank. Dr. Storniolo, along with Connie Rufenbarger, co-founded the KTB, and has been its heartbeat more than 15 years. Now it is time for her to have more time to travel and be with her family, particularly her two young grandsons.

Fear not, however! Dr. Storniolo is leaving us in a pair of wonderful new hands belonging to Michele Côté, PhD, whom the KTB already knows and loves! More importantly, Dr. Côté already loves the KTB. We thought you might like to get to know her history, work, and future plans; therefore, we now present a very important segment of our recurring feature, Meet the Researcher.

Q: How did you find out about the Komen Tissue Bank, and why did it interest you?

My awareness of the KTB was through a wonderful colleague of mine who was the Chair of the Detroit Race for the Cure at the time, and also a Komen Advocate. She came back from a national advocacy conference with the idea that we should hold a collection event for the tissue bank in Detroit. We traveled down to Indianapolis to meet the KTB team, and I donated tissue. In 2016, we held the Detroit event where we recruited 189 women to donate tissue in a single day, plus hundreds of volunteers. I was the scientific lead, and she was the community lead, and we brought everyone together to host this successful event. I stayed in touch with the KTB team after that time, and have even used the tissue in some of my research.

Q: What types of samples have you obtained from the Komen Tissue Bank?

My research group has used tissue samples to establish a “normal” baseline when looking at markers that may indicate an increased risk of subsequent breast cancer. Specifically, one of my graduate students became interested in crown-like structures of the breast, so-named because when the adipocyte (fat) cells die, they become surrounding by macrophages (a type of cell in your immune system) and when examined under a microscope, they look like little crowns.

Q: What do you hope to discover/have you discovered in your research?

In the crown-like structure research, we found that women who had donated tissue had fewer of these markers compared to women who had clinically-indicated biopsies. The tissue with the greatest number of these markers came from women who developed a subsequent breast cancer years later, suggesting that these structures indicate higher risk. I want to continue my work looking at tissue-based markers as a way to improve risk prediction for women who have benign breast disease or have had a clinically-indicated non-cancerous biopsy. We know they are at increased risk for breast cancer, but we don’t know why.

Q: How will the Komen Tissue Bank samples help with your research? What value do they add?

The Komen Tissue Bank samples are well-annotated (we know a lot about the women), and participants keep us updated about their health every year. This allows us to ask questions about what happens years, or even decades, before the breast cancer developed. Much of the work that has been done just focuses on the year or two before the cancer was diagnosed, which is likely too late. Additionally, this is a contemporary cohort with current exposures. While we have learned a great deal from studies that recruited participants in the 1980’s or even earlier, there are a lot of differences in exposures and behaviors between women who were mid-life in the 1980’s compared to now.

Q: Please explain in lay terms how your research might impact treatment options for  breast cancer patients in the future?

I hope that my work will impact various points across the breast cancer control spectrum. Some of my work aims to identify women at highest risk of breast cancer based on features in their breast tissue. These women could be eligible for more frequent screening (leading to early detection) or even medications to lower risk of developing cancer (chemoprevention).

Q: Our readers would love to know some personal information about you. Do you have any unique personal experiences? Tell us anything at all that you feel comfortable talking about.

This is a tough question! I have been skydiving, but it was a long time ago and now with 2 kids, I wouldn’t voluntarily do it again! I started out my academic career in engineering, switched to nursing, and finally ended up with a BS in biology. I found epidemiology by flipping through a book (this was before the internet) called something like, “Medically-related Professions” and it was exactly what I wanted to do. I was shocked that I had gone for academic counseling every semester and was at a university with a top public health program, but no one ever suggested it! I applied to 10+ graduate schools and never looked back, but if you would have told me at 20 years old that I was going to be a professor someday, I would have been shocked. I can’t wait to see what the next two decades bring both personally and professionally.