A cancer researcher writes about the toll brain cancer has taken on those he cares about

Dr. Barry Stoddard
Dr. Barry Stoddard Photo by Scott Streble / for Fred Hutch News Service

My name is Barry Stoddard; I'm a research investigator in the Basic Sciences Division at Fred Hutch. While I have never had cancer, I have witnessed one particular form of the disease (glioblastoma) up close and personal on so many occasions that I have sometimes wondered why I am not myself considered to be a potential cause of brain tumors.

In 1994, a senior colleague in my division at Fred Hutch, Hal Weintraub, was diagnosed with glioblastoma. Shortly before his diagnosis, Hal had posted a query on our floor, asking if anyone had been experiencing dizziness and vertigo — I imagine that he reasoned there might be a chemical exposure in the area to be concerned about. From there, things went downhill quickly. Hal participated in an incredible, even heroic battle — first educating himself in all aspects of the known biology and treatment options of his disease, and then engaging in treatment regimens that were as advanced as one could imagine. When he finally succumbed to brain cancer, the entire division and I suffered a loss that continues to be painful to this day.

Hal passed away in 1995. Almost exactly a year later, my mother called me to ask if I would be willing to drive her to a doctor appointment. A week earlier, while driving to work, she had been unable to progress through an intersection, because after coming to a stop, she suddenly could not remember whether red and green lights meant “stop and go” or vice-versa.

Dr. Hal Weintraub
Dr. Hal Weintraub Fred Hutch News Service file

After relaying this information to her doctor, he recommended that she undergo neurological tests and an MRI. After her scan, I recall that the attending nurse questioned her deeply about her symptoms — I should have realized at that moment that something very bad had turned up. When my mom called me later that day and told me that the scan had revealed a tennis-ball sized tumor, I was crushed. Like Hal, my mom put up a good fight, and believed right to the end that she would survive her glioblastoma.

When she passed away in June of 1997, my entire family was left with a void that we were never able to fill — my dad's wife, my sons' grandmother, my mom — gone forever. Years passed. Other people who I knew — a friend from my Ph.D. laboratory in Cambridge, my insurance agent's wife, a college friend's infant daughter — were diagnosed with brain tumors. Some survived; most did not.

In 2010, one of the founding scientists of the structural biology program at Fred Hutch, and one of my closest colleagues in our X-ray crystallography lab, Dr. Meg Holmes, was diagnosed with a glioblastoma. Only a year later, her family, friends and colleagues were attending her memorial at the Center. Among the scientists who helped to set up our research program, Meg was one of the most influential and helpful — conducting extraordinarily detailed and careful analyses of designed antibodies and vaccine candidates, while also leading many young burgeoning scientists through their very first forays into structural biology. Her impact on our research program, and the hole in our group that was left behind when she passed, were and still are enormous.

In 2014, a clinical trial was started in San Diego, by a company called Tocagen and physicians in San Diego, to treat glioblastomas using a revolutionary approach in which the cancer cells are infected with a genetically engineered virus, making the tumor cells susceptible to the lethal effects of an anti-cancer prodrug. I was surprised and then overwhelmed to find out that this trial uses an engineered enzyme, made and reported by my lab many years earlier, that produces the desired cancer cell killing effect. It is an incredible thing to realize that an unremarkable moment of success in a small laboratory has been translated into a new strategy for treatment of a cancer that has taken so many.

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