One April, Mayo Clinic oncologist Gerardo Colon-Otero, M.D., found himself the bearer of good and bad news. The good news was that he had discovered the cause of his patient’s severe stomach aches. The bad news was that the culprit was a tumor the size of a tennis ball, lodged in the patient’s pancreas. To make matters worse, the tumor was a form of pancreatic cancer that affected fewer than 50 people in the U.S. every year. With scant data to tell him how to treat the patient, Dr. Colon-Otero decided to generate these data himself.
He teamed up with colleague John Copland, Ph.D., a basic scientist who was in the midst of developing laboratory models that could mimic patient tumors. Dr. Copland took the patient’s tumor cells and grew them in sterile culture dishes before dosing them with different cancer drugs targeted at the cells’ molecular makeup. After one drug, doxorubicin, proved particularly adept at killing off the cancer cells, Dr. Colon-Otero gave it to the patient. Unlike most patients who succumb to the rare cancer in a matter of months, he survived for eight years.
“A decade ago, I would have not told you we can cure cancer, but I truly believe that we can now,” says Dr. Copland. “We have the tools to finally do it.”
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