Brendan Harley has battled — and survived — cancer two times. The Assistant Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Professor is also now doing research related to cancer in his University of Illinois lab. The American Cancer Society has funded his work, and in February he received the organization’s prestigious President’s Award for Research. Harley will be a featured speaker at Saturday’s Relay for Life event at Centennial High School in Champaign. Dad to 4-year-old Joan, Harley is married to UI faculty member Kate Clancy (a former Chambana mom to know herself). The family lives in Urbana.
See why we think Brendan Harley is a Chambana dad to know.
Q: You are a two-time cancer survivor. What does it mean to you to speak at Relay for Life?
It really means a lot for me to be part of the Relay for Life program this year. The American Cancer Society is part of a network of organizations that provide services on so many levels to cancer patients and their families. Having seen things from the perspective of a patient benefiting from treatments developed in part with funding from the American Cancer Society, a researcher working to develop the next generation of tools to help treat cancer, and a volunteer who has raised money to support all these endeavors it is very rewarding. I find speaking at events like this also helps to put things in perspective because it gives me the chance to think about the process my family and I have gone through to get to this point. I try not to cry (too much!), but it is really emotional to speak to people currently fighting for their lives as well as the family members who are right there in the fight with them. The energy at a Relay for Life event and the unwavering devotion and strength of its participants are hard to describe unless you’ve been to one. But I’m honored every time I have the chance to speak.
Q: You have devoted your research to focus on cancer and have been funded by the American Cancer Society. Did researching cancer factor into your decision to go into academia?
In a way. In high school my goal was always to be an engineer. I was diagnosed with leukemia towards the end of my junior year and spent the next year in an out of the hospital getting treatments. Through that process I met lots of young doctors, some of whom were engineers, and most of whom were involved in research to try to improve cancer therapies. It got me thinking that I could perhaps find a different outlet for my interest in engineering. Throughout college I explored a number of different research opportunities and came to the conclusion I wanted to work in the area of tissue engineering with a goal of eventually integrating an element of cancer research. In the end it has been a 15-plus year, sometimes meandering, journey to get to the stage where I’m at, and I couldn’t be happier. So you could say having cancer sparked an interest in a whole new area that I did not even consider.
Q: Can you describe your research and its potential impact?
My lab works on two types of problems. The first isn’t related to cancer, but fits more closely to what people consider as tissue engineering. We’re trying to develop strategies to regenerate orthopedic interfaces after injury. Tissues such as cartilage, tendons, and ligaments are all attached to bone in our bodies, and that attachment is a common site for injury. We’re working on new biomaterial strategies to help heal these complex tissues. This work has a lot of applicability to traumatic injuries due to sports injuries, blast injuries, and accidents and we hope to have new solutions in the clinic within the next decade.
The other half of my lab is working on a project directly tied to cancer, and is the one funded by the American Cancer Society. We’re trying to build a biomaterial that mimics the bone marrow. This is the tissue inside of our bones that is the site of hematopoiesis, the process where we make all the blood and immune cells our bodies need. Having an artificial bone marrow will give us the ability to study how the process of hematopoiesis takes place normally, and would provide a platform to potentially engineer patient specific blood and immune cells in the clinic. More importantly, an artificial bone marrow would be a substrate to study cases where hematopoiesis goes wrong, such as leukemia. We think it could even be used to test the efficacy of new therapies on patient-specific leukemic cells before the treatment is actually given to the patient. Getting to this point will be a long process, but I think one that will have significant impact on cancer patients.
This is a point I often talk about at Relay for Life: the importance of understanding that funding research in cancer requires a sustained commitment. The process to develop new treatments or new methods is often long, but it is important for the public to know that it is sustained support for such endeavors that makes a difference. When I was 1 I was diagnosed with a neuroblastoma (a tumor in my belly). In the 1970’s the survival rate for kids with a neuroblastoma was incredibly low; fast-forward 30 years to today, and a child born today with some forms of neuroblastoma now have survival rates better than 90%. That is what sustained support for cancer research can do; it can change the face of cancer but the time frame for this change is on the order of a generation. That is why it is so important for the public to understand what support for cancer research, and really all research in the life sciences, means. So the only question now is, what are the next set of cancers that the research of today will impact? I’m very proud to be part of this process and to have the support of the American Cancer Society to do it.
Q: How is your health today?
My health is fine. I’m now 15+ years out from leukemia and 30+ years out from the neuroblastoma with no real consequences. I know I am incredibly lucky to have made it to this point.
Q: What does it mean to you to be a father, especially after all you have been through with your health?
Being a father is great! As anyone with a 4-year-old knows there are some crazy days, but being a dad brings a whole new perspective to my life. I feel that as a cancer survivor I was already hyper-aware of how lucky I am to have each day, but being a dad adds to that sense a hundred fold.
Q: Father’s Day is in a few short weeks. What does your ideal Father’s Day look like?
I’m not really that into people making a fuss about me. This year we’re going to be traveling to Nebraska for ‘nerd camp.’ A long story, but my wife – Kate Clancy, also a professor at the U of I – and I are going to a writing retreat at the University of Nebraska. Joan (our daughter) is coming too and will spend the week at a camp at the Lincoln Children’s Museum. So even though we’ll be traveling on Father’s Day, we’ll be together the whole day. And I’m pretty sure we’ll find a place to stop and get some ice cream (I’m from Boston, which has the highest per capita ice cream consumption in the U.S.), making it a great Father’s Day!
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