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Shelley Earp presents the State of the Cancer Center
Retreat attendees pose for a selfie

2022 UNC Lineberger Scientific Retreat

The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center annual scientific retreat was held Sept. 15 at the Carolina Club in Chapel Hill, NC.

The event featured faculty talks covering a range of basic, clinical/translational and population science research, including approaches to utilize machine learning to automate analysis of immune cells, the investigation of the link between obesity and cancer, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on breast cancer detection and outcomes.


Approximately 200 people attended the retreat in person, and, although part of the streaming was temporarily disrupted by a national outage of Zoom, more than 100 participated virtually.

The day included nine faculty presentations, including:

Stephanie B. Wheeler, PhD, MPH, professor of health policy & management at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and associate director of Community Outreach and Engagement at UNC Lineberger, discussed a range of projects she and her colleagues are leading to better understand and address the burden of cancer in North Carolina as well as their efforts to combine institutional and community efforts to engage diverse audiences.

Angela B. Smith, MD, MS, FACS, director of urologic oncology at UNC Lineberger and associate professor of urology at the UNC School of Medicine, spoke about the behavioral, translational and clinical research led by the urologic oncology faculty that is improving the care and outcomes of prostate, bladder, kidney and testicular cancers.

Justin Milner, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at UNC School of Medicine, shared his lab’s work focused on improving the efficacy of cancer immunotherapies. Specifically, they are investigating approaches to manipulate or tailor how T-cells behave in microenvironments to make them more effective as cancer therapies.

In his State of the Cancer Center talk, UNC Lineberger Director Shelley Earp, MD, spoke about the strategic investments UNC Lineberger has made in faculty and staff, computational infrastructure, and research that will inform and advance the understanding and treatment of cancer.

Earp’s recognition of the cancer center’s success in identifying, recruiting and supporting promising clinical and research faculty – “This is a place where people can develop their careers and thrive,” – was met with a hearty round of applause.

Earp also highlighted the investments made to support the 11,000 new cancer patients who visit the cancer hospital and its affiliated clinics each year and their caregivers. Using private funds, the Comprehensive Cancer Support Program hired two additional social workers and a nutritionist this past year. “Our patients come from all walks of life. The need for comprehensive cancer support continues to grow during this difficult time; we are so grateful for our private donors who support this amazing effort,” Earp said.

The retreat’s success stemmed from a collaborative effort across departments and disciplines. Led by Andrea Walens, PhD, Team Science, and Melissa Mack, director’s office, the team of collaborators included Tim Poe and Oliver Marth, UNC Lineberger Cancer Network; Buddy Weissman, PhD, Cancer Research Training Education Coordination; Thomas Gehrmann, MOR, and Sherette Godfrey, PhD, Team Science; Barbara Alvarez Martin, DrPH, MPH, Community Outreach and Engagement; Jessica Platz, MBA, and Alexandra Corbett, director’s office; and Chesley Kalnen, Communications.

Jim Bear, PhD, professor of cell biology and physiology and pharmacology and co-leader of UNC Lineberger’s cancer cell biology program, said the scientific retreat is critical for the cancer center to be a cohesive organization.

“In my 19 years here, we have grown into a massive entity, and it is often quite difficult to grasp the depth and breadth of UNC Lineberger. As we emerge from the pandemic, it is really important to gather, in person, to renew the of the bonds of friendship, collaboration and belonging,” Bear said. “I always come away from Shelley’s ‘state of the cancer center’ talk feeling really proud to be part of this organization, and I suspect I am not alone in that feeling. This is also a chance to make new connections with students, postdocs and new colleagues that are the fuel for future scientific collaborations and, ultimately, cancer-relevant discoveries.”

Wendy Sarratt, DrPH, associate director of human resources and employee relations and interim associate director of administration, said the retreat’s agenda is shaped with the goal of planting the potential seeds of collaboration. “The retreat is intended to have scientific paths cross that might otherwise not intersect. Faculty, postdocs and staff get to hear about work that is separate from their usual daily fare. This forum hopefully generates questions and new ideas that might not happen otherwise. It was a great reminder of how broad our scope is and how many of us are out there working toward the same mission.”

Attending the scientific retreat for the first time, Patty Spears, scientific research manager in the Office of Clinical & Translational Research and leader of UNC Lineberger’s Patient Advocates for Research Council, appreciated the opportunity to learn about the work of others and to network.

“I came away with a clearer understanding of so many different programs within Lineberger. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to talk during lunch with my table mates,” Spears said. “I also had the opportunity to touch base with faculty and staff that I have worked with in the past and reconnect. Seeing everyone and having patient and community engagement mentioned in several of the talks was really good to hear. It is so nice to belong to UNC Lineberger.”

Poster Session

The retreat concluded with a juried poster session. Faculty and trainees presented 37 posters, with cash prizes awarded to the top speaker and posters in the categories of basic, clinical/translational and population sciences.

Basic Science

First Place ($250 award)
Katherine Camille Barnett, PhD
An epithelial-immune circuit amplifies inflammasome and IL-6 responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection

Second Place ($150 award)
Yijun Zhou, PhD
Large-scale purification of extracellular vesicles by heparin chromatography identifies two EV subclasses

Third Place ($100 award)
Caroline Fraser
Investigating the connection between EWS::FLI1 and PAX7 in transcription and oncogenesis in Ewing sarcoma

Clinical/Translational Research

First Place ($250 award)
Priya Stepp Hibshman
MYC is a major driver of KRAS-dependent metabolic abnormalities in pancreatic cancer

Second Place ($150 award)
Daniella Escobar
Increasing access and uptake for hereditary cancer testing for patients with breast cancer

Population Science

First Place ($250 award)
Elyse Miller
Evaluating implementation of HPV self-collection for cervical cancer screening among low-income, under-screened women in North Carolina

Second Place ($150 award)
Lauren Bates-Fraser, MA
Investigating the clustering of 24-hour movement behaviors in cluing physical activity, sedentary behavior, and sleep in US adults with and without cancer

Third Place ($100 award)
Janit Leonard, MPH
Race and risk of breast cancer related lymphedema in the United States 2003-2009