Oct. 4, 2021
Cory Fines likes a challenge.
The Virginia Commonwealth University Ph.D. student became interested in cancer research as a kid, not because someone close to him was affected, but because it was hard.
“My initial interest in cancer was simply because it's a big problem,” he said. “Within each cancer, there's a cancer. It is an evolving problem. You might solve one problem, but there's another ready to be attacked.”
And when choosing a sport, Fines was drawn to triathlons, grueling races of swimming, biking and running.
So when his boss offhandedly suggested that Fines bike to Philadelphia for an academic conference in October, Fines liked the sound of the new challenge.
“I’ve done long rides,” he said. “But this will be the most consecutive days where I’ve done more than 100 miles a day.”
He’s teamed up with VCU Massey Cancer Center to raise $1,000 for breast cancer research in support of his ride. The three-day trip will cover 320 miles, and Fines will arrive at the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists’ 2021 conference on Oct. 17. There he will present the research he and his team have done into triple negative breast cancer, the most aggressive form of breast cancer.
The research — and the ride — are challenges accepted, and challenges he’s thankful to be alive to face. Both seemed distant in January 2019, when a driver who didn’t yield hit Fines on his bike near 14th and Main streets. Fines was at VCU Medical Center for five days with fractures in his neck, shoulder and ribs. He had nearly bit off part of his tongue and had to get stitches in his tongue, lip and nose. There was surgery on his knee and months of physical therapy.
“It was a whole mess,” he said.
But the experience only served to rededicate him to his research and his sport.
Science and sports
Fines, a Midlothian, Virginia, native, grew up swimming and running. He added cycling while an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, with a bike he borrowed from his father. His dad had done a few triathlons, and, after trying one himself, Fines was hooked. [View Image]Cory Fines, center, celebrates a triathlon victory in Williamsburg, Virginia, this summer with his parents, Mark and Mary Ellen Fines. (Courtesy of Cory Fines)
“I loved it,” he said. “You get to explore the outdoors, God’s beautiful creation. It gives me structure and discipline in my life.”
He started entering races — and then winning them. This summer, he won his biggest race yet, a 70.3-mile triathlon in Williamsburg, Virginia, in the amateur category. He hopes to become a professional triathlete in the future.
Meanwhile, Fines started a Ph.D. program at VCU in the fall of 2018. He was returning to VCU, in a sense. In high school, he interned at Massey Cancer Center, always knowing he wanted to do cancer research.
“As a kid, I liked science and questioning things,” Fines said. “And I realized that cancer was so unique, intrinsic, and there's so many different ways it's working in the body. Plus, it affects so many people.”
Fines will earn his Ph.D. in Clinical and Translational Science, with a concentration in cancer and molecular medicine. The program is run out of the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research.
“It's just such a good program for me,” he said. “Basic research is so important, but at the same time it's important for researchers to always be thinking about how to put that knowledge into clinical practice. And that's what I wanted to be a part of — the research that's translatable.”
Tackling triple negative breast cancer
Fines’ research, overseen by Sandro da Rocha, Ph.D., and Douglas Sweet, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary venture that melds pharmaceutical research and engineering. Da Rocha is a professor in both the School of Pharmacy and the College of Engineering, as well as a Massey Cancer Center researcher. His interest in nanomedicine and immunotherapy intersects with Sweet’s work in the School of Pharmacy on the body’s “drug transporters,” specialized proteins that affect the movement of drugs within the body and the efficacy of chemotherapeutics.
“My initial interest in cancer was simply because it's a big problem. Within each cancer, there's a cancer. … You might solve one problem, but there's another ready to be attacked.”Cory Fines
The team is looking at both inherent and acquired resistance in triple negative breast cancer. Those are mechanisms that the cancer uses to evade the success seen with common therapy options. They’re looking at the tumor’s environment for clues as to why, over the course of a chemotherapy regimen, a patient stops responding to the treatment, while some never see a response to begin with. In doing so, the team aims to come up with new treatment options to increase overall survival for patients.
“One drug I'm working on now is already approved, but for something different,” Fines said. “So using this newer drug in combination with historically used chemotherapy puts us on the right path to clinical trials, translating science into treatment.”
The money Fines raises on his ride will support breast cancer research like the kind he, his mentors and their team do. He’ll ride the 320-mile route on a Trek Emonda ALR 5 road bike, camping out or staying in motels for two nights, while a friend drives as support crew.
“This is all new to me,” he said. “I’ve never done a fundraiser before, and I don’t know what’s a reasonable amount to try to raise.
“But I thought it’d be a fun challenge.”
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