Researcher reflects on how doing a century ride challenged and changed him

November 10, 2022
man holds up bike triumphantly in front of sign that says Hollings thank you
Dr. Leo Ferreira showed that persistence will get you to the finish line. Photos provided

Second thoughts assaulted him when a brutal headwind almost stopped him in his tracks close to the end of cycling his century ride. That was one of the toughest moments, said Leonardo Ferreira, Ph.D., who decided at the very last moment to do the 100-mile route during last weekend’s LOWVELO event that raises money for cancer research at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center.

Though he knew he was going up the Isle of Palms Connector slower than a person taking a leisurely stroll, he persisted – just like he does in his lab, where he studies cancer immunotherapy treatments. Here, he reflects on how the event affected him – not only in providing funding for the kind of work that he does but also in connecting him to the reason why he spends all of those hours in the lab.

Q: Is this the longest ride you've done, and what did you think of LOWVELO?

Yes, this is by far the longest ride I have ever done. I sometimes join an MUSC crew of researchers – John O'Bryan, Anand Mehta, Denis Guttridge, Eduardo Maldonado, Aguirre de Cubas and Jake Griner, an MSTP student – on long bike rides on Sundays. These depart from Sewee Outpost in Awendaw at 8 a.m. The longest one I have ever been part of was 45 miles, so 100 miles was more than double my previous longest distance. 

I really loved LOWVELO. All the energy and preparation, you can feel and see how much work goes into it. To be at Brittlebank Park at 7 a.m., the sky still dark, and hear from the director of the cancer center himself, Ray DuBois, followed by someone singing the national anthem and then the countdown – it was exhilarating. As we proceeded through downtown escorted by police motorbikes, we got to the Ravenel Bridge just in time to be graced by a beautiful sunrise. At first, the pace was leisurely, and I actually got to chat with some people, including exchanging some project ideas with John Wrangle. But then, the pace picked up, and what once was a crowd of bikers became sparser and sparser as some faster bikers disappeared in the distance. The rest stops were amazing, with volunteers laying out snacks, fruits and hydration. I certainly stopped at most rest stops and made sure not only to eat some snacks but also stuff some in my backpack – yes, I biked 100 miles with an increasingly heavier backpack – in case I needed to make my own rest stop along the long road. 

Q: What did you like best? 

What I liked best was the ability to bring the entire Hollings Cancer Center and the community together for one day with one goal: to raise money to fund research to end cancer. I think it says a lot about how dedicated and tightly knit the community is by the ability to have all these brilliant, busy people together in one event with such strong literal and figurative meanings. Seeing all the support from the community was outstanding as well. All the people helping with assembling and disassembling the infrastructure, catering the food, cheering the riders along the way and stationed at different rest stops. One rest stop was all the way up in Huger, South Carolina, and they used the local church's billboard to write "WELCOME MUSC LOWVELO." That is how I felt throughout the entire LOWVELO ride … welcome.

photo of a sign in front of rural church that says Welcome MUSC lowvelo 
A rest stop along the LOWVELO route welcomes riders.

Q: What was the toughest part of the ride?

Finishing the ride was the toughest part. When I started the ride at 7:30 a.m., I thought I was going to do the 50-mile ride. I had done 45 miles before, and that took me a few hours, so I reasoned that I could do 50 miles and then head for a well-deserved barbecue lunch. But when I arrived at the intersection where it instructed the 50-mile riders to turn around, and the 100-mile riders to turn right and continue, something took over me and said, “Why 50? You already know you can do that. Do 100.”

It took me eight hours and 10 minutes to finish the 100 miles. I peaked at mile 20 at 16.8 mph; by the time I crossed the finish line, I was going at 9.5 mph. I got lost twice – the RaceJoy app really rescued me by yelling in my backpack, "You may be deviating from the route!" and prompting me to turn around. My last rest stop was at the 75-mile mark. I did not stop for the remaining 25 miles. As I saw the "15 miles to go", "10 miles to go," signs my legs felt more and more exhausted. The IOP Connector never looked so daunting! I must have gone up the IOP Connector slower than a person taking a leisurely stroll. At the "5 miles to go" sign, I was really hitting the end of the tank, the headwind threatening to bring my pedaling to a halt. But I kept pedaling to the bitter end. Luckily, when I arrived at 3:40 p.m., there was still some barbecue for me, and the last shuttle to downtown departed at 5 p.m.

Q: What kept you pushing on? 

What kept me pushing on was the singular goal of getting to the finish line. I decided to ride 100 miles, the longest ride available, so I was going to finish it. It was a well-defined goal that I set myself. As the ride continued, it never crossed my mind whether I could do it, only how long it would take. This ride paralleled my ongoing journey as a researcher in the sense that I always challenge myself, pushing through as much discomfort as reasonably possible if that equates to making a quantum leap. 

In the LOWVELO ride, I was one of the last to finish the 100-mile ride, but I finished, nevertheless. So, I could say that I was part of the 100-mile riders, even if I was one of the slowest of them all. I’d rather be the slowest of the 100-mile riders than the fastest of the 50-mile riders.

Q: Why push yourself?

When I was a freshman in college in Portugal, I wanted to do research in a lab right away. I was the youngest and least experienced lab member by far, but it did force me to learn more and faster, and so I became a researcher, as opposed to a nonresearcher. When I was a college sophomore, I started looking into Ph.D. programs. It would have been easier, more streamlined, to do a master’s in Europe and a Ph.D. in Europe and only then look at the U.S. for a postdoctoral fellowship. Instead, I studied for the GRE and TOEFL exams, flew to the U.S. for the first time for interviews and got in graduate school in the U.S. At first, I struggled with the classwork and balancing lab rotations and classes. There are no interviews or lab rotations or classes during a Ph.D. in Europe, in most cases, but eventually I thrived, and so I was a Ph.D. student in the U.S. as opposed to a master’s student in Europe. I followed analogous trains of thought when it was time to become a postdoctoral fellow and later tenure-track faculty.

In general, I always strive to surround myself with people and put myself in situations where I have immense room to grow and learn. As soon as the going gets comfortable, it's time to reach for the next rung on the ladder. 

Q: LOWVELO, in part, funds the type of research that you do. Explain what it means to you that this event is helping to fund work that you do.

My research at Hollings Cancer Center focuses on designing and developing engineered immune cell therapies for cancer. Big strides have been made in liquid tumors – leukemia, lymphoma – using engineered immune cells called chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, or CAR-T-cells. Hollings itself has an ongoing program with researchers Shikhar Mehrotra and Brian Hess generating CAR-T cells and infusing them in patients. However, the most lethal tumors, solid tumors – lung, breast, pancreatic – have been refractory to CAR-T cells. The hostile microenvironment of solid tumors either prevents CAR-T cells from penetrating or deactivates them once they're inside. Yet, there is one subset of T-cells that is present in large numbers and thrives: regulatory T-cells, or Tregs. Unlike conventional T-cells, which recognize and kill abnormal – virus-infected, cancerous, stressed – cells, Tregs suppress immune responses. While this is great to prevent autoimmune disease and unwanted inflammation, in solid tumors, Tregs are part of what prevents tumor-killing by T-cells.

I am engineering Tregs as stealth bombers to eradicate solid tumors. Having this research funded means the community understands that we need to invest in today's explorations to benefit from concrete cures tomorrow.