Friday, August 20, 2010

A Weekend in Ann Arbor Amongst the Academics

And this is where it all happens . . . Sara's lab at the University of Michigan. Anybody see my beaker, anybody?

We arrived in Ann Arbor yesterday afternoon to spend time with my son Jim, Sara and their two kids. A is three and a half years and little O is four months old. A is spunky and hilarious and older than her years and she makes an amazing companion in any adventure. Now O is revealing her nature slowly but we have some indications of the woman she is to become. Her eyes are usually wide and incredulous with the joy she finds in her little life. She is ready to laugh and embrace whoever and whatever comes her way.

Sara presented her PhD defense on her thesis today. We walk down hallways with framed pictures of graduating classes from the 1800's and all the students are men. Now the halls are filled with women in lab coats and talking the academic talk and well, it's about time. Guess they should have let us out of the kitchen sooner . . .

And Jim has always told me that cancer will be cured on the molecular level. Now we cut out tumors and zap them with radiation and chemo but there is always that risk of a rogue cell escaping the process and traveling to another site to grow and destroy again. We must learn how to enter the cell and reprogram the mechanics to cause its self-destruction.

And so he gives me a lay person's synopsis in a nutshell of the work she has done. So bear with me and remember I am just a social worker.

The MLL gene is an important gene in our bodies that is needed for development and growing new blood cells. In order for cancer to happen a mutation must occur in a gene. In some cancers the MLL gene is broken and it attaches to a wrong gene. And this is how proteins are made and in these cases an abnormal protein is formed and this is what causes the cancer.

There are over 50 mutations associated with MLL fusion and all of them cause cancer.
So, it is recognized that some common mechanism is present in all MLL fusion proteins.

Sara found that these MLL fusion proteins recruit a complex of different proteins and this is not a normal process. The eventual conclusion here is that a drug will be developed that can target that complex and stop the cancer.

Still there? I needed to record this for my own benefit to read and remember at a later date. Dr. Hess, Sara's mentor and an MD/PhD himself says that she has made an important contribution to cancer research. He reminds me of the professor in Good Will Hunting - the hoitey-toitey guy with all the scarves who flirts with his young grad female students. Jay is probably nothing like this, my apologies, and we will see more of him at dinner tonight.

Sara comes to the end of her presentation to our group (she will then be grilled by four academics that have read her thesis and will be asking questions.) She thanks all the people responsible for her trip to the podium today, seven years of colleagues and friends, and then comes to my son, Jim. "Jim is my hero. He is the most amazing person . . ." and then she can go no further. The emotion overwhelms her and she cannot speak without tears. Oh, a mother lives for these moments. How can my heart be so full and not explode!

We visit Sara's lab and there is one thing I have always wondered about labs, not that I have been to that many labs. They're dirty, unorganized, boxes overflowing with supplies, things piled up and tumbling over. There is a continence pad used on hospital beds with some strange gook on it lying on the floor and everybody keeps walking around it. The floor is stained and dust is everywhere. Many computers, strange-looking microscopes and mechanisms, everything labeled with masking tape and felt tip pens. Refrigerators holding strange-looking specimens, boxes of plastic gloves and everything looking like it was pitched through the door way and left to land wherever. There is simply not enough room or counter top for everything that is needed in this room. How do they find anything? But there is an air of mystery and possibility here and all things are new and not definite. There are no rules and discovery is the magic that drives them. They could cure cancer here.

Sara does it. She finishes her defense and she has passed. She now has her PhD.

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