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Nov 23, 2018

The Philadelphia Chromosome


Edited: Nov 23, 2018

The Philadelphia Chromosome, A Genetic Mystery, a Lethal Cancer, and a Life Saving Treatment by Jessica Wapner ’92. Here is an exciting story of the arduous path from the discovery of the Philadelphia chromosome, a mutation, in 1959, to the clinical trials and finally widespread use of a drug, Gleevec, which targets the enzyme known as a kinase and inhibits its ability to set off the cascading process that leads to the terrible effects of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML). It is the story of dogged researchers, luck, money, and sick people who have a chance to recover a future once closed off. The scientists we meet here concoct a way to counter traditional chemo's “carpet bombing” approach with a targeted tactic that takes out the killer with just one bullet.

Jessica takes on the formidable task of sorting through the incredibly complex story and making it intelligible to the lay reader. In explaining the targeted method, she gives us an idea of how the kinase will be stopped in its tracks: “The ridges and dips on the surface provide cleavage sites, areas for the compound to grab onto, like a mountain climber finding a jutting rock for his next step.” If you read this book you will learn many new terms and think about cells, genes, and proteins as you have never before. I came away wishing I had another life to lead as a research scientist. The story is a thriller!

When I saw that Jessica had written this book I could hardly believe it. I was well acquainted with the Philadelphia chromosome as my husband has CML. He (and I, because I’m very happy to have him around) are the beneficiaries of this story. His doctor told him that his routine blood test indicated an abnormally high number of white blood cells and sent him to a hematologist. Dr. Faithlore Gardner, a native of Jamaica and living proof that we should be loving to immigrants, sat us down, explained that Don had the Philadelphia chromosome, and put him on Gleevec. By the next visit his blood was normal. She said he was in “molecular remission.” He has been there for over two years with no symptoms at all.

One breakthrough, miraculous as it is to those spared the onslaught of a terrible disease, is just a beginning, though it does give hope that medical science will give Jessica more stories to tell about how a killer disease was thwarted before it could ever cause trouble. If more of these stories come along, I certainly will read them.


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