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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer – most often cancers breast, lung, prostate and blood cancers such as leukemia. Although not everyone overcomes illness, thanks to science, more people survive – and for longer – than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been touched by cancer to share their stories – how their lives have been changed by the disease and how they are using this experience to change the future of cancer treatments in the hope that ‘in the end, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here is what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, database engineer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Céline Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a photo of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after finding unusual bleeding, so the suspicion that she might have cancer was already there. None of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive – or for treatment to start so early. Just two days after hearing the news, Ryan underwent surgery to remove the tumor, part of his bladder and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy soon followed.

Ryan’s treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014 she learned the terrible news that cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. His prognosis, they said, was probably terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from research online, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and his medical team. When she discussed immunotherapy with her oncologist, he quickly agreed that it was the best solution. Ryan’s cancer, like the majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect in the KRAS gene, which can lead to very aggressive cancer which is practically “imperturbable. “According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat cancer has been historically difficult. Thanks to his support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental trial of immunotherapy at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine if she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan finally been accepted.

The treatment, known as Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocyte Therapy, or TIL, is a testament to the evolution of modern science. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are naturally found in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the following weeks with a protein that promotes the rapid growth of TIL – and once the cells number in the billions, they are injected back into the patient’s body to fight cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had his tumor removed at NIH. Two months later, she was hospitalized for four weeks for the team to “cleanse” her immune system with chemotherapy and put the cells – the 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick returned for a follow-up appointment – and the news they received was amazing: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in his lungs had considerably decreased. Less than a year after his cell infusion, in April 2016, doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer free.

Ryan is still NED today and continues her annual follow-up appointments at NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed of being able to experience, like her children’s high school and college degrees. She also donates her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. “It has been an honor to do this,” Ryan said of his experience. “I’m just thrilled and hope my experience can help a lot more people.”

Patrice Lee, PhD, Vice President of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee embarked on scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau, but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee obtained an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually her interests changed and she decided to pursue a double doctorate in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), at the head of a group of scientists who determine the safety and effectiveness of new oncology drugs.

“Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet need,” said Lee, describing his area of ​​work. “We are determined to produce new drugs and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety. ”

Of the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval – an incredible achievement because many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug reach the market. Lee’s team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases – something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something his team is working on from a variety of angles. “Now that we have seen rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds as we apply this technology to cancers,” Lee said.

But while the evaluation of potential cancer therapies is a professional passion for Lee, it is also a mission that is deeply personal. “I am also a breast cancer survivor,” she says. “So I was on the other side of things and participated in a clinical trial.”

However, seeing how the melanoma therapies she helped develop affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a career highlight. “We have had therapy that has been approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma,” Lee recalls. “Our team in Boulder was honored by a visit from a patient who had benefited from these drugs that we have developed. It was a very special time for the whole team.”

None of these therapies would be available, says Lee without rigorous science: “Facts come from good science. The facts will lead to the development of new drugs, and this is what will help patients.

Chiuying “Cynthia” Kuk (they / them) MS, 34, third year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was only 10 when they had a conversation that would change their lives forever.

“My mother, who was working as a government translator at the time, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments, she got really sick,” recalls Kuk, who uses them / them. “When I asked my dad why mom was throwing up so much, he said it was the medications she was taking that would help her get better.”

Kuk’s response was immediate: “This is so stupid! Why would a drug make you feel worse instead of better? When I get older I want to create a medicine that won’t make people sick like this.

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from his native Hong Kong to the United States to do just that. Kuk enrolled in a small liberal arts college to earn his bachelor’s degree, and then four years later began a doctoral program in cancer research. Although Kuk’s mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk’s goal was the same as it had been when a 10-year-old watched her suffer from chemotherapy: to design a better treatment for it. cancer and forever change the landscape of cancer research. .

Since then, Kuk’s mission has changed slightly.

“My mother’s cancer relapsed in 2008, and she died about five years later,” Kuk said. “After my mother died, I started to have this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and in the end you strength i have a fancy drug that could help people, but I wanted to help people now. “With their mother still at the forefront of their minds, Kuk decided to quit her doctoral program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the emergency room is a place where the most marginalized people tend to. get treatment.

“I have a particular interest in the LGBTQ + population because I identify as queer and not binary,” Kuk says. “Many people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through emergencies and also tend to avoid medical care because there is a history of abuse and judgment by health workers. . How you behave as a doctor, your compassion, it can make a huge difference in someone’s care. “

Besides making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ + patients, Kuk also wants to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients, just like their mother did.

“We have already diagnosed cancer patients in the emergency department,” Kuk said. “I can’t say good news about cancer, but the way you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make all the difference to this patient and his family.”

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by providing compassionate and inclusive care, whether or not they have cancer. In addition to emphasizing their patients’ pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories and use neutral language. In doing so, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible to those historically sidelined.

“I’m just one person, and I can’t force everyone to respect you, if you’re marginalized,” Kuk says. “But I want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them.”

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