Recounting the dramatic story behind the development of a ground-breaking treatment for a genetic-based cancer, author Jessica Wapner spoke to members of the NSU community about “The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Genetic Mystery, a Lethal Cancer, and the Improbable Invention of a Lifesaving Treatment.”
Wapner was welcomed to campus on November 6, 2014, by the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences as part of the college’s Distinguished Speakers Series.
A freelance writer focused on healthcare and medicine, Wapner’s book, The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Mutant Gene and the Quest to Cure Cancer at the Genetic Level (2013) was the focus of the NSU discussion and the selection of the college’s fall 2014 Honors Reading Seminar.
In her book, Wapner chronicles decades of research, patients’ stories, and the roles of a physician-scientist and a pharmaceutical executive who helped prevent the derailment of a life-saving treatment for chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a fatal and spontaneous-arising cancer of the blood.
Today, scientists know that CML is caused by a genetic mutation known as the Philadelphia Chromosome––named so because it was discovered by scientists working in Philadelphia more than 50 years ago.
Wapner’s book explains “the science behind the disease,” the complexities of the cancer, and the story behind the discovery of Gleevec, the first drug designed to attack cancer at the genetic level.
Although the drug is not a cure for CML––rather it “staves off” the cancer, allowing patients to live a normal lifespan––the success of Gleevec has been a catalyst for more research tracking the genetic basis of other types of cancer, Wapner said.
Wapner focuses on the role of Brian Druker, an oncologist and scientist at Oregon Health & Science University, whose influential work is credited with the development of Gleevec, which did not receive initial support from pharmaceutical companies.
Wapner began her talk at NSU’s Minaci Performing Arts Center by reading a passage from her book, detailing the story of a 43-year-old man who was “suddenly and unexpectedly” stricken and diagnosed with CML in 2011 after seeking treatment for what he thought was kidney stones.
Weaving personal detail with scientific fact, Wapner’s narrative offers a poignant glimpse of the patient––facing a grim and uncertain future––as he answers questions from medical personnel while awaiting a bone marrow biopsy. He later began treatment and is alive today, she said.
“It’s a blending of science and humanity,” Wapner said of the book, adding that she wanted to show “how science very directly impacts people’s lives.”
Wapner’s work is published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Slate, Science, Nature Medicine, Ode,and Psychology Today. Her writing about cancer research and treatment is featured in the specialty magazines Oncology Business Review, Cure, and CR.
Following the presentation, Wapner led a Q&A session with audience members, concluding with a book signing. Earlier, Wapner met with students from the Undergraduate Honors Program in a special seminar.