This year, an estimated 232,000 American women will learn they have breast cancer. On April 28, Kim Koss found out she was one of them.
She took the news as many women do, with shock, fear and sadness. Two weeks later, the news got worse. Hers was a triple-negative cancer, a fast-growing form not fueled by the estrogen, progesterone or HER2/neu gene that are at play in most breast cancers. It meant commonly used drugs and treatments have little benefit for her.
The implications were not lost on Koss, who has a doctorate in biomedical sciences and years of experience with cellular research. Her prognosis was listed as “poor.”
“I knew what I was facing,” she says.
It could have immobilized her. Less than a month after her diagnosis, though, her scientist side took charge of what the patient side could not.
Hospitalized for diagnostic procedures, she had a visit from W. Keith Jones, a friend from her post-doctoral training who had just been named chairman of the Department of Molecular Pharmacology at Loyola University Medical Center.
She cried as she shared her prognosis. Then she proposed a project to use her tumors to develop a treatment for her disease. Out of that bedside conversation came a plan that could benefit thousands of women who have breast cancer or are at risk for it.
But to put it in motion, she’d have to take a gamble with her own health.
Koss and Jones, who trained together in two different labs, knew there is little research on triple-negative breast cancer, which accounts for roughly 15 percent of all cases and primarily affects African-American women. They knew an oft-missing element was untreated cells that could be cultivated for study and to develop drugs for clinical trials and treatment.
Together, they had the training and contacts to make a research project happen. Now, Koss had the cells. “I realized that I had an unprecedented opportunity to make a difference with my cancer,” says Koss, who worked in research at the department of pharmacology at Wright State University School of Medicine and the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine.
Her cells were precisely what cancer researchers seek – uncompromised by treatment, more readily cultured and thus more useful for study. But to preserve them, Koss had to forgo shrinking the tumors with chemotherapy before she had surgery.
“It’s the first thing a doctor recommends, and it’s in the best interest of the patient,” Jones says. “But in turn, you’re shrinking the cells – now they’re sick, damaged and of less help to that patient or others.”
So – already facing long odds and a shrinking window for treatment – Koss chose to wait. “I had to focus on healing, but I knew I also had to focus on the fact that these cells had secrets, and we can discover those secrets – and that’s huge,” she says.
She calls her decision “a privilege.”
On June 11, following Koss’ radical mastectomy, part of her tumor was flown to New Jersey, where it was transplanted into mice genetically modified to have immune systems like those of humans. The tumor will be cultivated to try to develop a drug therapy – perhaps even a vaccine – for triple-negative breast cancer. The mouse colony, so far, is thriving.
Another part of the tumor was sent to Loyola University for the study of a potential mutation in Koss’ T-cells, which regulate immune responses and attack cancerous cells. Still more was sent for genetic analysis and to study why triple-negative cancer cells grow so quickly.
Five hospitals and labs across the country set to work cultivating and decoding Koss’ donation.
Koss calls the entire sequence of events – her training, her friendship with Jones, their connections, her cancer, their research – providential: “I’ve always thought great good could come from cellular research – that we have to understand the normal function of cells to understand what goes wrong in cellular pathology. And I’ve always felt it was part of God’s calling to me, and that I was in his service as I pursued it. And I feel it now.”
Jones says he is awed by his friend and colleague’s choice to put research that could benefit others before her own treatment.
“It’s a brave decision, not one I’m sure I’d be willing to make myself. There’s a selfless aspect to participation in medical research. Mankind has this altruistic side of itself. Kim’s choice reflects the better side of ourselves.” ■
Friends and family of Kim Koss have established a crowd-funding page to help with her research project and care. To give: www.giveforward.com, keyword Kim Koss.
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.