Durham News: Opinion

Gaspo: Duke trains sniper’s bullet on cancer

The Duke doctor was borderline rumpled, with a great beard and laser-beam eyes. He was garrulous, modest about his work and consumed his lunch like a man on a mission.

That’s because he is a man on a mission.

Dr. Henry Friedman is the deputy director of Duke Preston Robert Tisch Brian Tumor Center. Some years ago, the two of us were having lunch at Parizade, down from Duke. The meal became a lesson about lifelong commitment.

A commitment to beating brain cancer.

Day after day, Friedman and his colleagues face people who who don’t have a very good chance of living. Six months is often a generous prognosis, by the time they arrive there.

“I can’t stop,” Friedman said from across the table. “I’m going to tell these folks there’s nothing we can do?”

No way. As recently portrayed on “60 Minutes” in a two-part series called “Killing Cancer,” (nando.com/144), the researchers, clinicians, surgeons, administrators and health care staff affiliated with the Brain Tumor Center simply don’t stop seeking ways of defeating a cancer that usually refuses to lose.

The broadcast focused on an experimental, extremely promising immunotherapy clinical trial where the targeted treatment modifies and uses the polio virus to attack and essentially poison tumors in glioblastoma, a virulent brain cancer that kills 2,000 Americans annually.

Duke Chief of Neurosurgery Dr. John Sampson called the treatment a sniper’s bullet. Darell Bigner, who runs the study and the center, appeared as optimistic as he can be in a field with so much struggle and loss.

Molecular biologist and educator Dr. Matthias Gromeier, for 15 years at Duke and before he arrived in Durham, has immersed himself in this idea.

The episode quoted Friedman saying, when Gromeier first told him about using the altered polio virus: “Oh, I thought he was nuts.”

So far, that’s not the case. The results for some patients have been remarkable.

Since the “60 Minutes” segments aired, people with brain cancer have contacted Duke from across the country. They want to be part of the painstaking and ingenious trial.

Still, even in this vaunted effort, brain cancer has been the victor a lot, too.

“We don’t give up,” Friedman told me that day at Parizade. He’s been in this battle for 34 years.

“I’d be so disappointed in myself if I didn’t do everything I could,” he said.

“I can win’

One of my dearest friends, John Noel, never gave up. I met him in journalism school on the first day of classes.

He talked all the time about staying healthy. John invited me to go swimming with him. I tired in about 15 minutes. I left him slowly doing laps for another hour. He swam that much every morning.

John was a martial arts expert, as well. He ate salads. Then, more salads. He was wise, funny, a military veteran, and a person whose heart pounded for people in need. John was a native of Brooklyn, and he would return there as a TV reporter years later.

Years after that, John got brain cancer. After surgery and treatment at the renowned Sloan Kettering, John beat it back once. He missed almost no work.

“I can win,” he told me on the phone. “I’m going to win. I have a nine-year old daughter who needs me.”

I remember him saying, in the weeks after some pain and headaches were returning, that his daughter, Jessina, had recently announced one afternoon: “Daddy, we know we like each other because we have fun even when we don’t do anything.”

I can’t forget that.

I went to New York to see John as he got sicker. Family surrounded him, though he was fully awake and aware. A meal came.

John’s elderly mother helped him sit up in the hospital bed. The meal: a plate of salad. Some things never change.

John never lost hope. “It’s going to work out,” he said softly. “I can’t leave Jess.”

I leaned over, kissed him on the cheek and said, “I love you, man.”

Nothing could save that strong and wonderful father. Two years ago this June, John Noel died of complications from brain cancer.

My friend and tens of thousands of others have needed a treatment that could help them win. A sniper’s bullet. These are the people that propel Friedman, and everyone on the team at Duke, to keep searching.

After 45 minutes that day at lunch, Friedman suddenly ended a sentence, looked at his watch, took a napkin to his hands and mouth and said politely: “You know I’ve got to go.”

I knew. He left fast.

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.