Wednesday, September 28, 2016

"Have You Found the Cure for Cancer Yet?"

"Have you found the cure for cancer yet?"

I remember being greeted by a friend when she saw me for the first time at the lobby of the BST research center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center with the question,  "Have you found the cure for cancer yet?" .  It was her welcome for me in the form of this popular joke into this place where studies right and left are done to do just that. Find a cure for cancer.

It was a short three month stint at this prestigious place as part of an NIH minority grant and I learned a lot and among them is good things take time. And one more thing.  The scientists do not necessarily chase that lofty goal of finding a cure at first but something less sublime and at times more in the form of fulfilling a challenge for personal satisfaction. Sometimes they just got to do it to fulfill the objective in the grant they have fundings from while for the younger ones, it might be to fulfill the requirements of the degree they are working for. But always the curiosity and the thrill of finding out whatever they are seeking were there

I remember a story about a writer who visited the large pharmaceutical company that produced Prozac to thank the chemist who discovered the synthesis of this anti depression drug. He profusely thanked the scientist whose discovery had helped lifted him from the debilitating disease.  The scientist just looked at him and deadpan said, I just did it because I wanted to do it.

I have done research related to curing cancer including the one for my MS degree at George Washington University (GWU) in the seventies. It was attaching fluorine instead of the tiny hydrogen unto a molecule that resembles the one in 5-Flurouracil (5 FU), one of the most effective cancer drugs to date.  I never thought that ten years later after I was done with my degree at GWU I would reconnect with this endeavour in some manner when I went home in the Philippines years later to be with my father who had terminal liver cancer.  

I remember being asked to stay behind by my father's oncologist after his appointment with him was done. In his office he showed me the XRAY of my father's liver where you can see holes the size of a quarter spread out in this malignant tissue. For drama, he showed me the XRAY of another person's liver with hardly any of it left.

He was an opportunist, thinking we had money and asked if we would go for broke to find measures in the United States to find a cure for my father.  I asked what the odds were in his experience and he mentioned how one of his patients who he accompanied in the plane to the US was resurrected by 5-FU.  Hearing 5-FU brought me back to my research at GWU.  

Going back to the car where my father was waiting, I had to lie to my father to explain my absence.  I told him that I met a classmate from high school who was now a doctor at the hospital and chatted with her. Then I could not help it, I told him I talked to his oncologist but did not tell him everything.  I just proudly told him I tried to synthesize a compound that mimics the effect of 5-FU that his doctor said was a miraculous drug cure for cancer.  I saw him beam with pride.

I never got to make that compound or any other in my whole career to cure cancer but I feel the satisfaction almost tantamount to a discovery by making my father happy and proud that day for attempting to do it.

My father died a few months later.  We did not go for broke to bring him to the US for the cure and the oncologist did not get his free trip to the United States either.  For myself, I found a loftier reason for why I was doing what I did and would later on.   

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