By Sara Bondell
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, it destroyed homes, cut off power and made drinking water scarce.
The circumstances were dire for those on the island, especially those fighting cancer. Moffitt Cancer Center treats more than 40 cancer patients from Puerto Rico every month and has a long-standing research partnership with the Ponce Health Sciences University (PHSU). The university houses thousands of cancer tissue samples that were in danger of being lost with power out across the island. Losing the samples would set cancer research in Puerto Rico back by more than decade.
Moffitt understood the need for immediate support and teamed up with the Tampa Bay Rays on a mission to deliver supplies, bring back cancer patients and their caregivers and save the cancer tissue samples.
The trip was a success. The team delivered 30,000 pounds of supplies and brought back two cancer patients and their loved ones to seek treatment under the care of Moffitt oncologists. Today, both patients, including Angelina Carle, are still being treated at Moffitt.
“Leaving behind all the conditions at home for the chance to be treated at Moffitt has been one of the most extraordinary experiences of our lives,” said Carle’s son. “It’s like we were in a desert and Moffitt was our oasis.”
The team was also able to transport four liquid nitrogen-chilled storage containers nicknamed “mushrooms” because of their shape filled with an estimated 3,000 tissue samples to Tampa for safe keeping.
“All the samples were saved,” said Moffitt researcher Dr. Teresita Muñoz-Antonia. “Losing those samples would cripple multiple research projects at Moffitt and Ponce, who have forged an academic partnership.”
That academic partnership spans more than 10 years and is a collaboration on studying cancer in the Hispanic community to improve outcomes. It is challenging to get enough samples from Hispanic patients because they and other minority groups are underrepresented in all of the big databases.
The samples have remained in Moffitt’s care the entire year while Puerto Rico continues to rebuild electricity infrastructures, and there are plans to return them back to the island at the end of this hurricane season. The facilities at PHSU are back up and running and tissue collection resumed in early 2018.