What does this blog have to do with Jim Hiller? Everything, because as Winston Churchill said, “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.”
She was just a kid, her dad near death from lung cancer. She read something, somewhere, about a promising new drug treatment. What does this 15-year-old do? Oh, only make a call and beseech a local researcher to give her leftover medicine from the clinical trial.
“We were poor so we couldn’t afford anyone to administer the drugs,” she explained. “So I got the pharmacist to teach me how to do it, according to instructions from the researchers.
“I would look in the white of dad’s eyes, look inside to see if they were pale or not, to see if he was anemic. So I sort of practiced medicine at 15, and he lived six months longer than he was supposed to. And that was meaningful, because if you’re going to lose your dad at 15, six months is a long time.”
And thus began the astounding career of Argentine-born Sofia Merajver MD, PhD whose chief effort, and I say “chief” because she dons more hats than anyone I have known, is working fervently to determine why some breast cancer cells are so aggressive in their propensity to spread. Such cancers are difficult to treat and generally have poor prognoses.
So this is deadly serious business. Our country has one of the world’s highest incidences of breast cancer — 230,000 annually. Some 2.5 million are affected globally, and most of those women have no access to treatment at all. That’s where the University of Michigan’s Center for Global Health comes in. Dr Merajver directs it.
“How do we take care of people in an area where there are three oncologists for 25 million people? How can we design cancer programs for people who make $2 a day? We have to create answers,” said Merajver who, in addition to being a physician, has a doctorate in physics. She also is a U-M professor of internal medicine and epidemiology, scientific director of the Breast Oncology Program of the Comprehensive Cancer center, and director of the U-M Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risk Evaluation Program.
The latter two inspire much of her lab work, which has included an important discovery that genes called RhoC and p38gamma foster the movement of breast cancer cells and their invasion into tissues and blood and lymphatic vessels. “We believe this will have important implications for the future with regard to developing medicines that prevent this kind of motion,” she explained.
“We have developed a very strong drug candidate in the lab, and would like to move it along in further studies and to see it through as soon as possible to human studies.” All very expensive, of course.
But lives are in the balance, many in regions like North Africa, where a very aggressive form of the cancer, called inflammatory breast cancer, accounts for more than 10% of all breast cancer cases. There has been progress in so-called high income countries like the US – overall breast cancer mortality has decreased 2 percent a year for the last 20 years – but much more work is needed, especially at a global scale in low resource areas
“The cancers we are curing now are a fantastic achievement, but in doing so we have also learned the depths and complexity of the enemy, and how much we need to understand about the cancers we are not curing,” she said. “We’re working hard to know the major causal players.”
Merajver has a great team. She’s trained over 100 scientists, more than 60 post-doctoral scientists and hundreds of under-grads, who are working all over the world. “Look, if you spend all the money on what’s in front of you without training a new generation, you’re not really getting it,” she said. “If we’re so short sighted to think we can solve all the problems in our lifetime, that’s the biggest mistake we can possibly make,” she said.
Not that she’s not trying. And she’s up to it. This is a woman who lost not just her dad, but her mother, too, at a very young age. She has three children, one with a profound disability. And when she can, she’s off to countries with scarce resources, where she tries and has succeeded many times to better the lives of women with the disease.
She wouldn’t have it another way.
“God has given me a few extra hours a day beyond the 24,” she said, chuckling. “I am obviously willing to have a lifestyle that entails that my work is a very huge part of what I do, every day and night.
“But this really is a privileged existence. To be paid for having ideas, and curing people … it’s just a huge, huge, huge honor. There’s nothing that compares to the opportunity to save lives.”
I believe that there is a near sacred obligation to support Dr. Merajver’s work. More about that later, but I personally am gearing up to prove Winston Churchill was correct.