As she endured chemotherapy and the painful processes that come with treating cancer, Laura Nowicki’s thoughts often turned to a new type of cancer treatment being researched at Cornell Engineering. She wondered if it might be able to save her life.
Laura was as much a Cornellian as one could be without having a Cornell degree. She married David Nowicki, MBA ’93, M.Eng. ’94, just before he began studying at the university. Their son, Ryan Nowicki ’16, was born while David was still a student, and from his earliest days was clutching a scholarly-looking Big Red bunny – a stuffed animal that Laura hoped would subtly influence her son’s future choice of college.
“Somehow it worked,” says David.
After Ryan enrolled in the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, Laura was a popular presence in the Big Red community. She got involved with the university’s fundraising efforts as part of the executive committee for the Family Fellows Program, specializing in outreach and training other parent volunteers. Through the program, she learned about a number of research projects happening across campus, including one that especially piqued her interest as someone with a strong curiosity for science.
“She would talk about it all the time with everybody that she met for years and years anytime the topic of cancer would come up or anything of that nature,” says David. “She read about it and investigated it, so it was always on her mind.”
Laura had attended a 2016 presentation about silica nanoparticles, called C Dots (the C stands for Cornell), capable of seeking and destroying cancer in ways conventional treatments couldn’t. At the time, C Dots had been under development for almost a decade in the materials science laboratory of Ulrich Wiesner, the Spencer T. Olin Professor of Engineering.
As Wiesner had explained, C Dots’ ultra-small size enable them to penetrate solid tumors, and unlike antibody treatments that often accumulate in organs and cause unwanted side effects, they can harmlessly clear the body through the kidneys. Despite their size, C Dots can carry 10-times as much medical payload as antibodies, and can be customized for a range of diagnostic and therapeutic applications.
Laura’s son, a Cornell student at the time, also remembers her interest in the research.
“My mom was a passionate advocate for women’s health issues,” Ryan recalls, “particularly breast cancer, as this had directly impacted family and friends in her life long before her own diagnosis.”
After she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, during the very earliest phase of her treatment, Laura’s interest in C Dots became more focused and personal.
“She started asking, ‘What if we could use that technology? Could that help?’” David remembers. “The doctors were pretty confident that they were going to be able to solve her cancer, so we didn't really think that it was necessary to go to an advanced kind of solution. But we did investigate C Dots to the point of realizing that it wasn't ready for clinical trials.”
But the family didn’t discount the potential of the technology. Even though her doctors were operating with a high degree of confidence, Ryan told his mother that, inspired by her strength and courage, he wanted to start a fundraiser to help advance C Dots.
“My mom was a force to be reckoned with, leaving an indelible impression on every community she belonged to, including Cornell,” says Ryan, “so it felt right to do something to reflect her inspiring spirit and contribute to this work that she had been so passionate about.”
Ryan decided he would start “Laps for Laura,” fundraising for the Cornell research by running a series of races to qualify for the New York City Marathon. Thousands of dollars started pouring in from Cornellians and others inspired by Laura Nowicki’s fight. And as this momentum was building, the family received some alarming news from the doctors.
After a series of surgeries and other steps to treat her breast cancer, the disease had returned with greater strength than any of Laura’s doctors could have predicted. She had been dealt a particularly rare type of hyper-aggressive metastatic cancer that was taking over her body.
Despite trying radiation therapy and advanced targeted therapy under the direction of five different oncologists from all over the country, her cancer continued to spread. She eventually tried an experimental procedure, a clinical trial for a new antibody drug conjugate that had extended the lives of others participating in the trial. The treatment lasted one month, but in the end, cancer took Laura’s vibrant life on June 26, 2021.
“While we were surprised and saddened that the trial did not work, Laura’s doctors explained that dosage limits and rapid cancer growth were too much to overcome,” says David.
Laps for Laura
There was a tremendous outpouring of support from friends and family eager to celebrate Laura’s life and honor her memory, and Ryan’s crowdfunding efforts continued to garner donations. Laps for Laura ultimately raised about $30,000 for Wiesner’s cancer research and culminated with the New York City Marathon, which Ryan ran with a photo of his mother buttoned to his shirt. Many of the campaign’s supporters were there to celebrate with Ryan and his family at the finish line.
“I know exactly what Ryan went through,” says Wiesner, who lost his father to melanoma at around the same age that Ryan lost his mother. “This terrible feeling of being helpless and one's own inability to do anything against it as the disease progresses over time.”
David and Ryan said they were grateful for the hours that Wiesner has spent with them, explaining his work in more detail, and how C Dots were being engineered to give people like Laura Nowicki hope. Through those conversations, they began to see what had so excited her.
“I came to realize that it really could have helped her and I think that it will help people that are in her position in the future,” says David. “I'm confident that the C Dots could have gone inside the tumor as opposed to accumulating on the outside, and they could have been used for a more aggressive treatment without the same toxicity.”
Just three months after Laura’s passing, a version of C Dots developed by Elucida Oncology – a company co-founded by Wiesner – began clinical trials as a treatment for patients with advanced and recurrent cancers, including ovarian, breast and lung cancers.
For Laura, C Dots were a promising science with the potential ‘to do the greatest good,’ and she wanted the world to know about it. The Nowicki family says they will continue to look for ways to support and raise awareness for the research, in hopes that others might be offered a second chance.
“When I think back where I was at Ryan’s age,” says Wiesner, “it would have never occurred to me to translate my pain into action to improve the situation for other cancer patients in the future.” Wienser adds that he’s grateful for the Nowicki’s support, and “to see that our research is meaningful and matters is the greatest gift.”
For Laura’s family and friends, her influence lives on.
“What I remember the most about the funeral service was that everybody said Laura taught them a lesson in life,” says David. “She lived her life with such compassion, such curiosity, and made the most out of every moment. With her passing, everyone has changed their lives in some way.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the framed photo of Laura holding Ryan when he was a baby, which keeps its prominent place on a mantle in David’s home next to that scholarly-looking Big Red bunny – the same one that perhaps worked a little magic in inspiring Ryan to attend Cornell.
David says the stuffed animal will remain there, partly a memento of Laura’s love and affection for her family, partly because David believes it may one day inspire future family members to live like Laura and leave their own mark on the Cornell community.
Beyond fundraising and running races, Ryan carries on Laura’s passion for learning, leadership and service as a Cornell Alumni Admissions Ambassador. This past May, he married his Cornell sweetheart, Zoe Katz ’15, surrounded by many of their family and friends who made ‘Laps for Laura’ possible.