By the end of the course, the University of Tennessee grad had been approached by one of the speakers, an editor at Glamour magazine, impressed not only with Zammett’s 3.9 college GPA, but also with the fact that the sassy, 5-foot-9-inch Zammett had been the first woman accepted as an intern by Playboy magazine.
Zammett also looked the part of a Glamour editor. As an athlete she allowed herself only infrequent, age-appropriate overindulging, focusing on building not only an athlete’s body, but one that would someday carry a child.
At the same time that Zammett was becoming an “it girl” on the East Coast, oncologist and researcher Brian Druker, MD, of Oregon Health & Science University Cancer Institute in Portland, was watching seven years of research come to fruition.
Since 1993 Druker had been working on a targeted therapy for cancer—a new approach to cancer treatment that researchers saw as an avenue to make cancer a manageable, chronic disease by shutting down one or more of the mechanisms that tell a cell to divide. Across the country, researchers such as Druker had been exploring myriad ways to interrupt cell division. Many of them reached dead ends after being outwitted by the body’s intricate ability to safeguard cell growth.
Druker’s focus was a compound that would shut down a family of enzymes that prompted growth in a number of cancers, one of which was chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML, a cancer of the bone marrow that causes rapid growth of immature white blood cells. People with CML can live for years without being aware of its presence until the cancer hits high gear, filling the body with leukemia cells. When Druker’s drug showed success, it finally offered an option for CML patients other than a bone marrow transplant, the only treatment that approached a cure for the cancer. Known as the treatment that might kill you before the disease does, bone marrow transplant requires hospitalization and extensive chemotherapy to kill the leukemia cells before the patient is “rescued” with new bone marrow. It is a difficult treatment and leaves the patient sterile.
Druker’s drug would be taken daily in pill form and have few side effects for the patients whose cancer could be controlled by the minimal dosage. As it showed more and more promise, the new drug was moved through clinical trials quickly. By 1998 phase I trials had begun, showing results more remarkable than expected and leading quickly to phase II and phase III trials in order to get the drug to those who had relapsed after bone marrow transplants.
As Druker’s compound moved through phase I and phase II clinical trials, Zammett was firmly ensconced in New York City with a great job, an apartment, and her family only a few train stops away on Long Island.
From an early age Zammett had made decisions with clarity and determination, planning for a future that she envisioned would combine a successful career and a large, loving family like her own.
The key piece fell into place when her college boyfriend, Nick Ruddy, moved to Long Island to be closer to her, where he lived with her parents and worked for her father while finishing his business degree. Weekdays Zammett spent in the whirl of the fashion magazine industry; weekends she enjoyed family and Nick.
In 2001 Druker’s drug, now known as Gleevec (generically, imatinib), was submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which “fast-tracked” its approval in fewer than three months.
That same year Zammett, on a fast track of her own, left her annual physical with a line worthy of a screenplay:
“So, I’m healthy, right?” she asked. “Yep,” said her internist. But he had been premature. He called her back the next day with the results of her blood work: 23-year-old Zammett had CML.
In a perfect world Druker and Zammett would never have met. Instead, within weeks of her diagnosis, Zammett traveled to Oregon to explore the new drug called Gleevec.
Today 29-year-old Erin Zammett Ruddy has been on Gleevec for more than five years. The pill is her only physical reminder of the cancer, which is officially in the undetectable range, according to her physician and Druker’s partner, Michael Mauro, MD.
Now a features editor at Glamour, she oversees production of several pages in the front of the magazine as well as features, while looking for interesting stories to cover.