Friday Frontline: NCI Research Project Identifies Genomic Mutations That Helped “Exceptional Responders”, a 15-Year-Old Cancer Survivor Dies of COVID-19, And More

November 27, 2020
Conor Killmurray

From the National Cancer Institute releasing promising research data into the genomic mutations that helped “exceptional responders” survive on treatment when others didn’t, to a 15-year-old Kentucky cancer survivor dying from COVID-19, here’s what’s happening in the cancer landscape this week.

David Deutchman, known as the “ICU Grandpa” for volunteering to help premature and sick babies, has died, shortly after being diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

Deutchman, 86, earned this nickname during his 14 years of volunteer work at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, where every Tuesday and Thursday he would comfort sick and premature babies. After retiring from his job in international sales, he wanted to give back, and went through intensive training to work in the neonatal intensive care unit. He became known as the “Baby Whisper” among the staff, many saying they never saw a baby cry in his arms.

"The love was palpable," his daughter Susan Lilly said in an interview as the staff of the hospital honored Deutchman with a drive by parade during his initial diagnosis. "There's very little that anyone can say or do when you're in grief like this, but our family definitely recognizes and appreciates the outpouring of love from those he touched."

A research project led by the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) examined the DNA of tumors and immune cells from 111 “exceptional responders” and found genomic changes that may explain why they responded well to certain drugs when other patients did not.

These “exceptional responders” have often been dismissed as unexplainable, as most patients with multiple tumors do not remain as healthy over time, but in 2014 the NCI launched an initiative to examine these patients for worthwhile data. In one example, a patient with a brain tumor only received chemotherapy but survived 10 years after the treatment, which is atypical for these patients, because the tumor mutated in a way that crippled two DNA repair pathways the cells would have used to fight the treatment.

“It is gratifying to see so much novel information from this initial survey of cancer patients who have done unexpectedly well with existing therapies,” cancer biologist Harold Varmus of Weill Cornell Medicine, said in an interview. According to researchers, these results provide complex unique hypotheses for researchers to study further.

As the COVID-19 pandemic impacts holiday gatherings and fundraising for cancer charities, one neighborhood in Dublin, Ireland looked to tackle both with an extensive light display.

For the past six years, Dylan Wash has decorated his house with Christmas lights extensively, in honor of his friend Anthony Doyle, becoming a highlight for the neighborhood to gather and watch the spectacle. But this year, Walsh got his whole street in on the festivities by decorating every house to create an even bigger celebration. Each night, the community gathers safely outside to watch the lights go on, and is asking anyone that has enjoyed them to donate to a GoFundMe to benefit the ARC Cancer Charity in memory of Mr. Doyle.

“Everyone needed a boost this year, especially after the lockdowns,” Walsh said in an interview, and while the display required thousands of meters of lights to untangle he said he didn’t mind the work, “I want everyone to have a Merry Christmas."

15-year-old cancer survivor Alexa Rose Veit has passed away from coronavirus earlier this month, and her family wants to raise awareness around how deadly the virus is.

Alexa was diagnosed with leukemia in July 2019 and after initial treatment shortly went into remission. Born with down syndrome, Alexa was known for being a social butterfly in her community, a member of her high school choir and church youth group, even after treatment for cancer. She was feeling sick and was pulled out of school during Halloween week. Both Alexa and her mother were diagnosed with COVID-19, and while her mother was put on a ventilator, Alexa only exhibited mild symptoms. However, her condition began to decline, and she passed away shortly after her mother was released from the hospital.

"Those who knew Alexa asked we help raise awareness of how deadly this virus is and how important it is to follow the guidelines in place," Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said in a news conference, as Kentucky sees a surge in COVID-19 cases. “Today and every day, I'll wear my mask for Alexa, and I hope you will too."

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