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‘Living biopsy’ creator’s passion comes from family tragedy

April 29, 2015

The UW-River Falls biology department is revolutionizing the way cancer is studied. Professor Timothy Lyden and Brazilian foreign exchange students have been testing how cancer spreads through the “living biopsy” project.

The living biopsy project creates artificial tissue which is taken from a cancer patient to map the biology of that particular tumor. They then examine how it will grow and respond. According to Lyden, this gives physicians another piece of dynamic information to what Lyden calls the “biology of that tumor.”

Lyden’s interest in cancer research has deep roots that tie to personal family experiences. The disease touched his youngest daughter Jenny at only three months old when she was diagnosed with childhood muscular cancer, and after nine months of treatment Jenny lost her battle with the disease.

“I found my motivation in science,” Lyden said. “Her short life channeled my interests, and I have been focused one way or another on the question of how cells develop and specialize as well as how the process can go very wrong in the case of cancer.”

Lyden also watched his father deal with cancer and most recently his wife has fought her own battle with the disease.

“Like many other people, I have had a lot of exposure to cancer and decided a long time ago to work on developing a better understanding of the disease,” Lyden said.

Through this understanding, Lyden is passing on his knowledge and expertise to a select set of Brazilian foreign exchange students. In the past 14 years since coming to UWRF from the Ohio State University College of Medicine, Lyden has mentored more than 125 students through his lab, mostly through tissue work.

One of these students, Lindomar Pessoa, has been working with Lyden on a breast cancer cells research project that models breast cancer tissues by using 3D techniques.

The main goal of this project is to come up with an in vitro model to metastasis that will allow for a better understanding of how to stop the metastasis process. According to the National Cancer Institute, metastasis is the spread of cancer from one part of the body to another.

Pessoa is dedicated to studying clinical pathology in Brazil but saw an opportunity to increase his studies by working with Lyden after taking a stem cell and regenerative medicine course at UWRF.

“I’ve always been interested in studying cells and how they behave, plus I can’t see myself out of the lab,” Pessoa said.

Pessoa believes that students can make a difference in the world of cancer research by clearly understanding the role of science in their lives.

“Specifically when participating on a research of this magnitude, we will for sure be more prepared researchers in future,” Pessoa said.

Lyden’s prediction for the future is that cancer will be treatable, not necessarily curable, but will allow people to be able to live with it under control because of stem cell understanding.

The long-term goal of the living biopsy project is to develop a start-up company in this region under the direction of Lyden with the hope of potentially bringing in past students.