Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A New Attack on Cancer

When you search "creativity" in Google, here is one of the first images that pops up

Before taking this class, I associated creativity with coloring outside the lines and standing out with an unexpected fashion trend. I saw creativity as the products from Shark Tank and the graffiti that makes you take a second glance.  I thought of creativity strictly as a characteristic of the artist and inventor, but nothing beyond that.  My initial definition of creativity was limited. 

My point remains that c(C)reativity is not and should not be limited to art.  

Fortunately, I learned from this course that creativity offers applications far beyond a light bulb over someone’s head and emanates through innovations of every field.  In fact, in scientific cases, creativity might save lives and could mean a more optimistic prognosis for patients around the world.  Through this course and through individual research I realized what creativity means in the context of my future field of medicine, specifically in studies of brain tumors at Duke University’s Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center.  60 Minutes broadcasted a special report on this scientifically creative case, and after watching it, I knew I had to blog about this news report (1). 

Medical imagery of brain tumor

Who? What? When? Where? This 60-Minutes special zeroed in on five brain cancer patients being treated with a radically aggressive and relatively new cancer fighting technique researched by Dr. Matthias Gromeier.  Dr. Matthias Gromeier is the associate professor of surgery (neurosurgery), molecular genetics, and microbiology at Duke University.  His laboratory’s central mission is “to unravel the molecular basis of growth and proliferation control in cancer.”  Said in another way, laboratories at Duke and many other universities have studied the abnormal growth characteristics of cancer cells for years.  Through understanding of the nature of cancer cells itself, treatment regimens can be pinpointed to selectively interrupt the growth machinery of only cancer cells while maintaining the integrity of surrounding healthy somatic cells (2). 

Scientific animation of poliovirus

In Dr. Gromeier’s work in particular, the creative connection that no other lab observed is the genetic link they found between poliovirus and glioblastoma.  From his background in microbiology, Dr. Gromeier was familiar with how natural immune response pinpointed poliovirus presence in the human body and directly attacked the virus by ceasing poliovirus replication (2). 

On the other hand, from his background in molecular genetics, he knew inside and out the differences in genetic mechanisms of cellular replication for both healthy and cancerous cells, and that genetic codes behind cancerous replication had characteristics in common with the genetic codes expressing the poliovirus.  He then made a courageous hypothesis, fusing his two fields of expertise together (2). 


He concluded that implantation of poliovirus into cancerous tissue would evoke an immune response to attack the cancer cells infected with genetically-engineered poliovirus, thus selectively interrupting any replication and metastasis of cancerous cells.  He employed natural immune defense, a tool that was available all along, to potentially solve one of medicine’s biggest problems (1). 

In May 2012 clinical testing began.  After five rounds of Phase 1 Clinical trials, implantation of poliovirus eradicated glioblastoma tissue in five out of five brain cancer patients.  Four of the five patients continue to live cancer free today.  Even at maximum dosage administered, no toxic side effects were reported from the implanted poliovirus or immune response, for the disease-causing genes of the poliovirus were spliced out, and the immune response employed is natural to the 
patient’s body (2). 

Nancy Justice

What speaks louder than the clinical results are the testimonials from the four successful patients.  One in particular is 58-year old Nancy Justice, a mother suffering from glioblastoma.  She initially thought she wouldn’t be able to survive to see her son graduate high school.  Three years after treatment, she not only attended her son’s graduation but also is watching him succeed in college.  This is what she said regarding her experience:

“I’m taking [my miracle] one day at a time.  It sounds lofty to say I am a medical explorer, but you know, throughout all of this, if it gives other people hope I am all for it.” (1)

Dr. Gromeier reports that his laboratories will continue to test the potency of the genetically-engineered poliovirus on more patients suffering from glioblastomas.  They may also investigate potential virus targets outside of polio to use in treating other cancers.  With continued success he hopes to test his poliovirus treatment on other types of cancers in multiple stages of development (2). 

To me the beauty of Dr. Gromeier’s creative discovery lies in the fact that he is employing natural human immune response, something that has always been around and cannot be synthesized by any drug company, to combat the most lethal of human maladies.  Immune response was taken for granted until now.  Dr. Gromeier’s ability to make connections between his passions of microbiology and genetics could mean more optimistic prognoses for the millions of cancer patients around the world.  Not to mention, his lab is composed of bright young minds only a few years out of undergrad.  This future of genetic knowledge and control over health is becoming more and more of a reality every day. 

Quickly we can form analogies from past creatives studied to this case at hand.  For example, popularity with audience affects the success of a creative idea or product.  With initial presentation of Dr. Gromeier’s idea of implanting disease into an already compromised cancerous tissue, most members of the scientific audience were skeptical of the idea from the get go, worrying that the poliovirus would cause more damage and infect the brain tissue before any lymphocytes could respond.  However, like many other creative innovations, from Picasso’s austere art to Bayer’s aspirin, time and trials gradually revealed the immense value of the idea, and people now realize the brilliance held by the cancer research at Duke. 

Dr. Gromeier based his creative conclusions on past research studies of poliovirus and glioblastoma genetics, and we see that same pulling of knowledge from the past in the example of creative Stravinsky.  Stravinsky heard Tchaikovsky’s music as a child and later alluded to Tchaikovsky’s signature musical techniques through Rite of Spring and Firebird. 

As discussed in class, Big C Creative ideas make an impact for future generations while little c creative ideas facilitate day to day things.  Just as Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod invention has reshaped city skylines since America’s founding, Dr. Gromeier’s laboratories are putting forth BIG C creative ideas that will reshape cancer treatment and the medical field forever (3). 

This story of creativity is a source of hope for the millions of cancer patients around the world, in that asking the right questions and seeing the worth in commonplace things, like our immune system, is essentially what keeps the human race alive.  Personally, this story reminds me that my field in science is no exception to the challenge of being creative.  Scientific creativity is what prolongs lives and keeps families out of the hospital and happy at home.  After reading this story and seeing this example of young, bright minds formulating such an important idea, I am more inspired to work hard in my field and keep my eyes open for connections that might just lead to something more.


  1. Dr. Gromeier’s work is heartwarming and beautiful. To think that not only has his scientific breakthrough saved four lives, but probably countless to come. And he's not stopping! He's continuing to develop his breakthrough even after his great success so that it can hopefully lead to more cures of different types of cancer. His persistence is another sign that he is a Big C Creative, since he keeps creating even after he accomplishes something great. And now researchers of today and tomorrow can take his progress and develop it even further. He is a giant of which future scientists will stand upon his shoulders.

  2. Scientists are usually not the first people that come to mind when naming someone creative, but so much ingenuity is required to think of these medical advancements. The cool thing is that this creativity is directly linked to saving lives. I cannot wait to see what else Dr. Gromeier thinks of next!.


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