Judy Pearson, '75 2015-07-20 06:02:01
GIVING CANCER THE SPARTAN TREATMENT My father Edwin Foster always told my brother and me that we could go to any university we selected—in the city of East Lansing. After two seconds of consideration, we both realized Michigan State was our only choice. We really didn't need any encouragement. Dad had graduated from Michigan State College in 1950 and never missed a game in Spartan Stadium. He sang the fight song to us in our cribs. We sang it as a tribute at his funeral. Our family blood runs green. Our diplomas are as treasured as bowl game and Final Four victories. But even these pale in comparison to the day I "met" fellow Spartan, Barnett Rosenberg, PhD. Okay, we didn't meet in the traditional sense. Rosenberg, an MSU chemistry professor, passed away in 2009. Two years later, I was sitting on my deck, a week after my mastectomy for triple negative breast cancer. Enjoying the sunshine and thumbing through the MSU Alumni Magazine, I came across the article Are You a Cancer Survivor? I hope so, I thought. As I continued reading, my future seemed rosier. The article detailed Rosenberg's discovery of cisplatin, an anti-cancer drug described as the backbone for combination therapies used to treat testicular, bladder, lung, ovarian, head and neck, and gastric cancers, and most recently, for triple negative breast cancer. In other words, my cancer. Just a day earlier, my doctor had told me triple negative cancer was very aggressive and said we were going to be equally aggressive. My chemotherapy regimen, she told me, would begin with cisplatin, which would kick whatever remained of my disease into cancer hell. Rosenberg—now one of my medical heroes—was not a cancer researcher by training or academic ties. Rather he was a member of MSU's biophysics faculty. In 1965, he was examining the effects an electric field had on the growth of bacteria and realized the bacteria had stopped dividing and growing. Further research revealed that the platinum electrode he was using in the experiment had reacted with the salt in the bacterial solution, creating a new molecule that inhibited cell division. Of course, the cell everyone wanted to prevent from dividing was the cancer cell. Rosenberg's discovery was excellent news among researchers desperate to stem the cancer tide. The leap from Rosenberg's bench to patients' bedsides took 13 years. Cisplatin finally earned FDA approval in 1978. Such a powerful drug was not without collateral damage, however. In addition to attacking cancer cells, it also attacks the lining of the stomach, causing nausea and vomiting. A friend called me when I was experiencing a particularly rough day midway through my chemotherapy treatments. I attempted to revive my sense of humor. "This chemotherapy thing is not for the faint of heart," I told him. "I'm sure it's working though because if I'm feeling this awful, the cancer must feel really bad!" MSU recognized Rosenberg in 1998, bestowing upon him an honorary Doctor of Science degree. Rosenberg was also awarded both the prestigious Charles F. Kettering Prize and the Harvey Prize. The royalties the MSU Foundation received from the discovery helped fund the MSU Barnett Rosenberg Chair in Neuroscience. In addition, Rosenberg's discovery even earned him a well-deserved page in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. It is the millions of lives saved by cisplatin that have made this drug one of the greatest discoveries to come out of Michigan State to date. Consider this: each of us who has survived thanks to cisplatin has the potential to change others' lives for the good. The possibilities are mind-boggling. I am just one example. My cancer journey led me to co-found the Women Survivors Alliance, an international non-profit supporting women survivors of all types of cancers. Because Rosenberg made my survival possible, he also made my organization possible. His discovery-exactly 50 years ago-has allowed me to pay it forward. Thank you, Barnett Rosenberg. I hope I'm doing you proud. Judy (Foster) Pearson, a freelance writer, earned a BA in the College of Arts and Letters. Womensurvivorsalliance.org
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