Michele Coté, Ph.D., is just getting started in her new role as the second director of the Susan G. Komen Tissue Bank at IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center.
An internationally recognized molecular cancer epidemiologist and health disparities researcher, she began at IU on Sept. 1.
In addition to her role with the Komen Tissue Bank, Coté is the inaugural Dr. Carrie Ann Glasscock West Chair in Breast Carcinogenesis at IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center and a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the IU Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI.
Dr. Coté answers questions about what brought her to IU, shares her connections with the Komen Tissue Bank, and more.
Q. What attracted you to IU?
A. My first introduction to IU, other than being a graduate of another Big Ten school, was through the Komen Tissue Bank. Most of my work in molecular epidemiology utilizes tissue, typically tumor tissue, but I immediately understood the need for normal. So, the first draw was really scientific.
After my first visit, I appreciated the fact that the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center was recently awarded comprehensive status by the NCI, highlighting the fact that there are incredible clinicians and scientists with the goal of transforming cancer control and care through collaborative, translational research. I’m also very excited to be a part of the Fairbanks School of Public Health, where I can help train future epidemiologists and public health practitioners.
Q. You are a molecular epidemiologist who studies cancer and health disparities. Can you break down what that means?
A. Sure. Epidemiologists are interested in the distribution and determinants of disease in a population—who is getting cancer? How are they different from people who aren’t? As a molecular epidemiologist, I use molecular biology tools to answer these questions at a cellular level. For example, we know cancer is a disease of your DNA. What genetic differences do we see in those who get cancer compared to those who don’t? How do other factors (like the environment or behaviors) impact risk along with the DNA (genetic) differences? In all of my work, my end goal is to understand what drives health disparities in populations so that we can identify appropriate interventions and reduce the burden of cancer for all.
Q. What can you tell us about your research?
A. I have a couple of different research programs I will continue at IU. In breast cancer, I’m very interested in understanding how benign breast disease impacts risk of a subsequent cancer. There are more than a million breast biopsies done annually in the United States, and the vast majority are benign. My earlier work, and that of others before me, suggests that having a benign breast biopsy increases risk of a subsequent breast cancer. I hope to define this higher risk population of women who have had a prior benign biopsy to identify ways to identify those at highest risk, and ultimately intervene to intercept the development of cancer. The KTB aligns perfectly with this work, as most of the participants do not have breast cancer and have varying levels of risk.
I’m also focused on understanding why we are seeing increases in endometrial cancer incidence, particularly high-grade cancers with poorer survival. These cancers are more frequently diagnosed in African American women, and as a field we really have no idea why this happens. Finally, my dissertation work from nearly two decades ago was on the molecular epidemiology of lung cancer. While I’ve moved away from that area, I am engaged in work that assists people, particularly people who have had poor access to quality care, to get into evidence-based tobacco cessation and lung cancer screening programs. All of the areas I describe are challenges critical to the health of the people of Indiana.
Q. Before joining IU, you interacted with the Komen Tissue Bank. How did you become connected with the KTB?
A. 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 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 projects are you most looking forward to working on as director of the Komen Tissue Bank?
A. Right now, I’m mostly excited about gaining a deeper understanding of the ongoing scientific projects, but also thinking about ways to keep the KTB at the forefront of research for the next decade and beyond.
Q. How do you envision the Komen Tissue Bank’s next five years?
A. I expect that the KTB will continue to grow in the number of participants, will enhance follow-up and engagement of participants over time, all with the constant goal of remaining flexible and responsive to needs from the research community.
Q. What are the biggest questions in cancer research that keep you up at night?
A. The biggest questions always go back to the “Why” for me—especially with breast cancer. We know there is a genetic component, where you see breast and ovarian cancers in multiple generations, but for most women, they have little or no family history. Why them? And it goes from there, into a broader why, “Why do women of African ancestry get triple negative breast cancers more frequently than those of other ancestral groups? How can we identify those at greatest risk, and focus screening there? How can we improve life after a cancer diagnosis? It keeps going!
Q. What has surprised you about your experiences as a cancer researcher?
A. I am constantly surprised by how far we have come with respect to understanding the causes of cancer, how to detect it earlier, and how to treat it. At the same time, I’m also surprised with how far we have to go in these areas. It is a rapidly changing field, with breakthroughs monthly, and yet certain types of cancer are still difficult to treat. Once you think you have answered one question, five more appear.
Q. How has the re-location from Detroit to Indy been going?
A. The relocation has been slow but steady! It is difficult to move after two decades, but I’m confident that we will settle in soon. Michigan and Indiana are similar in many ways, which helps.
Q. What do you like to do in your spare time?
A. I have two kids, one starting high school and the other college, so most of my spare time has been taking them to and from and watching them develop into interesting young adults. I love watching Big 10 college sports, traveling to just about anywhere, going to concerts, and hot yoga. I bought a bicycle here and can’t wait to explore the Monon Trail and other off-road places. A koi pond came with my new house, so I imagine I’ll be learning how to take care of that over the next few months, especially as winter approaches.
Photo: Dr. Coté with her son, Jared, at his high school graduation and her daughter, Leah, and husband, Bob.