Woman collects healthy breast tissue

The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — About three years ago when an unsolicited email from the Susan G. Komen Tissue Bank at the I.U. Simon Cancer Center popped up on Donna Zemlick’s computer, she could have just as easily sent it to the recycle bin as open it.

Instead, the Anderson resident found herself on a Saturday morning being ushered through a series of stations at the Coleman Center in Indianapolis, first giving information, then having a spot on her breast numbed and a core about the size of two peas extracted. The entire process, she said, took a couple of hours.

“I’ve been very blessed myself that I’ve never had (breast cancer), but I know other people who have,” Zemlick said. “If they could do a biopsy on mine and find a cure, that would be great.”

Zemlick, 46, who has donated twice, is one of several Madison County women who have contributed to the bank, the only repository in the world dedicated to the collection of healthy breast tissue. Some other banks collect cancerous breast tissue.

She is one of 5,000 women from 45 states and the District of Columbia who have donated tissue and blood to the bank since it was renamed in honor of Susan G. Komen in 2007. In all, more than 10,000 women have contributed to the bank, established several years before then.

Because the breast tissue bank is in Indiana, most of the donations come from there. But over the years, the center has conducted 30 collection events in Southern California, Detroit, Louisville and Chicago. Collection events are planned for Nov. 11 in New York City and in March in Phoenix.

On average, the number of donors per drive is up to 200.

Zemlick, who said her boyfriend’s mother and sister are breast cancer survivors, said in the past she has given to United Way and Wounded Warrior.

“This was something that kind of fit in that bucket. It was like, ‘Hey, this is something that I can do,'” she said. “That’s just who I am because everybody needs help. If I help one person or a hundred, that would be great.”

Dr. Anna Maria V. Storniolo, executive director of the center, said the goal is to collect as many specimens as possible across the continuum of breast development from puberty through pregnancy, lactation, involution or weaning, to menopause. That allows the changes to be monitored and for researchers to understand whether treatment is effective at different stages.

“Our goal is to try to provide as many version of normal as we possibly can,” she said.

In fact, Storniolo said, breast tissue can change within the same month because of the phases of the menstrual cycle.

“To be able to understand the complexity of breast cancer at a molecular level, you need to be able to understand normal. Cancer is the ultimate in abnormal,” she said. “Even in its normal state, it’s an organ that’s changing all the time throughout a woman’s normal life.”

Once the tissue and blood are collected, they are processed on-site, with part of the sample snap-frozen in nitrogen and part fixed in a common preservative and processed the same as a tumor removed in surgery, Storniolo said.

“We try to keep it as unblemished as possible so that the individual investigator can do with it as he or she needs because science is always changing. It changes month to month,” she said.

Every sample, Storniolo said, is examined under a microscope.

Because the bank is collecting normal tissue, there is no expectation that cancerous tissue would be found. However, Storniolo confirmed donors are told they would not be notified if their tissue was found to contain cancer.

“This was never intended to be a diagnostic biopsy,” she said.

Based on donor data collected by the center, researchers can requests specimens based on variables such as age or smokers versus non-smokers, Storniolo said.

“Some investigators interested in women who were hypertensive during pregnancy, and we were able to find enough specimens to send to that investigator.”

Costs include $75 per hour for tissue bank staff to collect data from donors and samples from $50 to $225, depending on the sample type.

According to center statistics, tissue from the bank has been a resource for 117 research projects worldwide, including Purdue University, the Mayo Clinic and the University of Queensland in Australia. Samples from the bank have been used for 35 published studies.

“One person’s donation can be used something like 10 or 12 experiments, and that doesn’t even include the data they give us, which can be used without the tissue itself,” Storniolo said.

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