On the day of their visit to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, a proud mother and a grieving father met one another for the first time, strangers connected by a football team, a name and a desire to raise awareness about cancer.
It was their sons, both named Justin, who brought them together.
Kelly Britt’s 25-year-old Justin will likely start this September as center for the Seattle Seahawks. It’s his third year as a professional football player. He played first as a tackle, then as a guard for the perennial Super Bowl contenders.
Adam Lazara’s son, Justin, was an avid Seahawks fan. But just 12 days ago, after a nearly year-long battle with a brain tumor, he passed away at his home in Auburn, Washington. Saturday would have been his fourth birthday.
Adam saw in his July 12 visit to Fred Hutch a way to strike back at the disease. “As someone touched by cancer, I feel I have a responsibility to do my part, to raise funds, to raise awareness,” he said.
His son’s battle with cancer had also struck a chord with Seahawks stars. Quarterback Russell Wilson twice visited young Justin at his Seattle Children’s hospital bedside. In one of his last outings before he died, Justin visited the Seahawks training camp where he had a 10-minute chat with coach Pete Carroll. “It was so gracious of him of talk to Justin,” Lazara said. “He knew that he wasn’t going to make it.”
Little Justin Lazara and big Justin Britt never met, but when the two parents arrived at Fred Hutch, a cancer center named after a sports hero, they felt a strange symmetry at work.
Kelly Britt lost her father to cancer, and her mother, Nancy Estes, has large cell carcinoma in one lung, small cell carcinoma in the other. Kelly flew out to Seattle from Arkansas to participate with her son this weekend in a cancer fundraiser for Seahawks fans, Quake the Lake, in Bonney Lake. She came to Fred Hutch to learn more about the research that its scientists are doing in lung cancer. “I’m here for my mom,” she said.
Adam and Kelly met with Fred Hutch researcher Dr. Jim Olson, who told them how a protein found only in scorpion venom was the key to his experimental drug, dubbed “Tumor Paint,” which is now undergoing human clinical trials. The protein binds to cancerous cells, not to healthy ones, and under a laser light will color a brain tumor blue, so brain surgeons will know which cells to cut out and which to spare.
The same protein, which is modified from its natural form, is also being tested for illuminating cancers of the breast, prostate, colon and lung.
Olson, who treats patients at Seattle Children’s, talked of how his young patients inspire him and his growing research staff. He told how the passing of a young girl named Violet led him to launch Project Violet, which has raised more than $10 million for his laboratory and helped to purchase the advanced equipment used to screen a vast family of small proteins that have a knotted structure similar to that of Tumor Paint. Olson’s lab calls modified versions of these proteins “optides,” short for “optimized peptides,” and is testing thousands of them for potential medical applications.
“Talking about Violet almost brought me to tears,” Adam said. “I feel she and Justin were kindred souls.”
Adam and his wife, April, have donated Justin’s tumor tissue to Olson’s Pediatric Brain Tissue Tumor Bank, which stores and analyzes their molecular and genetic traits, searching for patterns that could lead to new treatments or cures.
It’s just the start, Adam said, of an effort to help researchers push back against the disease that took his son. His particular form of brain cancer is called primitive neuroectodermal tumor, or PNET. It’s a rare tumor, highly aggressive and difficult to treat. Justin was treated with six months of extensive chemotherapy, and another six weeks of head and spinal cord radiation. He was also treated at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s proton-beam facility in north Seattle, which can target tumors with extreme precision.
An expert in pediatric brain cancer, Olson happens to run the largest clinical trial ever undertaken for PNET patients — a regimen of radiation and chemotherapy. But the protocol requires radiation treatments deemed too dangerous for toddlers, so young Justin was never a candidate for that trial. Adam said that Justin’s tumor was located in a part of the brain considered inoperable, so he would not have benefited from the Tumor Paint studies, either. However, he was excited to learn of Olson’s work on optides.
“If Dr. Olson's work with optides to deliver chemo drugs to the brain without damaging other organs is successfully developed, then children like my son would have a hope for survival,” he said.
The end of the tour took the two parents of the two Justins to the Fred Hutch Visitor Center, where the walls are lined with photographs of people who have come there to reflect. In a quiet moment, Adam said to Kelly, “Our journey with Justin is done, but I am going to be doing a lot of praying for your mother.”
Adam and Kelly sat together, took their photo and each penned messages on the print, which they pinned to the wall, with all the others. “My son, Justin, died of PNET and his tissue is helping researchers find a cure,” wrote Adam.
“I’m here for my mom Nancy Estes who has lung cancer. I’m here to find a cure!” wrote Kelly.
Sabin Russell is a staff writer at Fred Hutch. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information about participating in a cancer clinical trial, please contact Fred Hutch’s clinical care partner, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, or send an email to: email@example.com. Another good resource about clinical trials is the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service, which can be reached at 1.800.4.CANCER. The phone line is staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.