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COLUMN ONE

Science begins at home

Unwilling to let his wife down as she suffered through chemotherapy, a Caltech chemist shifts his molecular focus to find an easier treatment.

August 11, 2007|Denise Gellene | Times Staff Writer

Overcome with nausea from chemotherapy, Mary Davis distracted herself by studying each leaf on the trees swaying outside her hospital window.

She turned them over in her mind, mentally tracing their edges and veins. The trick worked for a while. But the wrenching sickness always returned, making her feel powerless against her breast cancer and the drugs that were supposed to cure her.

Adriamycin, known to patients as the "red death" because of its color and toxicity, had brought days of vomiting and weakness. Her hair fell out in bunches. Now, cisplatin was destroying her immune system and leaving her with a constant ringing in her ears.

Her husband, Mark, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, could not get used to her suffering, or that he could do nothing about it. He kept vigil at her side, rotating the recordings of classical music that helped soothe her.

As Mary struggled with the side effects of chemotherapy, she blurted one winter day in frustration: Wasn't there someone at Caltech capable of designing a less ravaging drug?

It was less a question than a plea.

Mark didn't have an answer. Cancer wasn't his field, and he knew nothing of the science involved -- but he soon would.

Mary Davis was home in Pasadena, dressing for work. It was 1995, and she was starting a job as a business manager at Caltech, her first since giving birth to twins, Andrew and Christopher, 3 1/2 years earlier.

A lump under her armpit stopped her.

Cancer seemed unimaginable. She was 36 and fit, a former swimming instructor who still worked out. Besides, people in her family didn't get the disease.

Her doctors acted quickly, removing her right breast. Her adjacent lymph nodes, eight of which were cancerous, had to be cut out as well.

That was just the start. Concerned that her lymphatic system might have carried cancer to another part of her body, her doctor recommended aggressive chemotherapy to prevent her disease from returning.

Although chemotherapy has been a mainstay of cancer treatment for decades, it is still a crude weapon, akin to using a bulldozer to pluck a dandelion.

The drugs throw wrenches in the molecular machinery that causes cells to divide. Because cancer cells are continually dividing, they are susceptible to the medicines.

But the drugs also attack normal cells that frequently replicate -- those found in blood, hair, finger nails, reproductive organs, the immune system and the digestive tract's lining.

The side effects are so severe that doctors must strike a balance between destroying the cancer and killing the patient.

Mary and Mark saw no other choice. "You don't get a second chance with cancer," he said.

Her fatigue from the drugs lasted weeks, worse than she had imagined. She told Mark that on some days it took all her energy to lie on the couch and watch their sons play with Lego blocks on the floor.

Her final treatment of high-dose cisplatin was followed by a bone marrow transplant to restore damaged tissue. Mark spent every day at her bedside at City of Hope in Duarte, wearing a surgical mask to protect her from infection. Their daughter, Erica, and the twins had to speak to Mary from the hallway using walkie-talkies, a glass pane separating them.

Mary confided that sometimes she wanted to die, until she thought of them.

--

Mary's question that winter day had unsettled Mark.

He had never thought about cancer research but felt he couldn't let Mary down. He started collecting stacks of scientific papers from the hospital's medical library to read in her room.

He wasn't sure what he was looking for, and logic told him he was not likely to think of something that had not been considered by scientists who had devoted their careers to cancer. Sometimes he would get an idea, only to discover that it had been knocked down decades before.

But he kept at it. He thought of himself as a problem solver. Like many scientists who had risen to the top, he was brilliant, driven and, some might say, obsessive.

Growing up in the early 1970s in northwestern Pennsylvania, Mark was the sort of mediocre high school student Caltech rejects in droves.

His passion was running. On winter mornings, he would run in the paths left by snowplows, becoming one of the top high school sprinters in the country and earning a track scholarship to the University of Kentucky.

There, Mark discovered chemical engineering and quit the track team, figuring academia offered a better future. After earning his doctorate at Kentucky in 1981, he left to assume a teaching post at Virginia Tech, among the country's top engineering schools.

One of Mark's first seminars was on his hobby of underwater photography. A college senior, Mary was in the audience and loved his slides of coral reefs and fluorescent blue-and-yellow fish.

Here is a professor with a life, she thought.

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