Dear NICHD Fellows,
Over the past six months, I have been on a wild ride. I have experienced moments of joy followed by days of uncertainty and fear. I have been fighting something that many of you are actively working to understand. Cancer.
On February 21, 2012, I was diagnosed with Primary Mediastinal B-Cell Lymphoma (PMBL), a subtype of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. I won’t go into detail about this cancer here because I know many of you have already opened another Internet window and started your Google search. My purpose in writing this letter is to affirm that your contributions as doctors and scientists are making a real difference in saving lives, whether you see it in your day-to-day experiments or not. I know this because researchers at the NIH have developed a treatment that is saving my life.
After spending a year at the NICHD as a postdoctoral fellow and another year as the editor for this newsletter, I find myself back at the NIH. Only this time I’m a patient on a clinical trial. I have done the research; I have supported the research; now I am the research. I’m one of the numbers in n=49.
The history in my veins
I am here today because years before I was born, a set of experiments happened in the right place at the right time. But more importantly, those experiments were communicated to the right people.
In the early 1980s, research into B-cell development was revealing critical information about the workings of the immune system. Doctors and scientists were rapidly identifying B-cell specific surface molecules. At the same time, other researchers were gaining ground on creating the first genetically engineered monoclonal antibodies, combining antibody fragments from both mice and humans. The simultaneous success of the two research initiatives spawned the idea to create genetically engineered antibodies that could target proteins on human B-cells. In 1997, the resulting product, Rituximab, became the first FDA-approved chimeric antibody used to treat a human disease: B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
On the other side of the country, NIH researchers were testing a new concoction of chemotherapy. My doctors found that cultured cancer cells have decreased drug resistance when exposed to low doses of specific agents (known collectively as EPOCH) for long periods of time. Based in part on this evidence, the team developed a continuous infusion-based chemotherapy. My doctors took information from basic laboratory experiments and applied those same concepts to a novel treatment protocol, which has shown close to a 100% cure rate when combined with Rituximab.
I received my first doses of Rituximab and EPOCH on March 2, 2012. Just like the cultured cancer cells, my body was bathed in a continuous infusion of drugs. I can’t help but feel like I’ve had history pumped into my veins, a history of which each of you has helped to create. Whether you use human cancer cells or C. elegans, the knowledge we gain as a society from your ideas and efforts will continue to fuel the most important thing for a patient: hope.
Motivation, Support, and Creativity
As scary as the situation is, I’m comforted by the fact that I’m being treated by some of the brightest minds in the world. If I had been born only a few decades earlier, my prognosis would be very different. I shudder at the thought. But thankfully we live in a time when accumulated knowledge from around the world is at our fingertips. The most imaginative ideas are being tested. Technology is expanding the boundaries of creativity. Your work possesses the real potential to affect the health and well being of your family, your peers, and our future generations.
On behalf of all patients whose lives have been touched by your dedication to science and your brilliant ideas, thank you. I will do everything in my power to provide motivation, support, and creative inspiration through this newsletter. The work that is done within these NIH walls is saving my life in a very acute and obvious way, and for that, I will be forever grateful.
Your Editor in Chief,
Shana R. Spindler, PhD