How Hamsters (Among Others) Helped to Save My Life After a Cancer Diagnosis


Biological drugs, as well as animal testing, concern both consumers and researchers. But, as these drugs can save or extend lives, they provide important advances in medicine.

I have always loved hamsters. When I was in treatment for breast cancer, I became intrigued with the evolution of Herceptin (trastuzumab) for many reasons, not the least of which was how hamsters contributed to the development of the monoclonal antibody that came on the market in recent years to save or extend many lives of individuals with HER2-positive breast cancer.

According to Genentech, which pioneered the drug, development took "trillions of monoclonal Chinese hamster ovary cells." What Herceptin does, to put it in simple terms, is deregulate a protein (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) that is overexpressed to make cancer more aggressive. In some cases, overexpression influences hormone-positive cancers. In others, as in mine, it correlates with hormone-negative status, a less common diagnosis. It is thrilling to think that Herceptin targets a scary oncogene.

This drug was first available for patients with metastatic breast cancer and later for others in earlier stages on certain chemo regimens. During my year with the drug, I found a community of HER2-positive women reporting on their experiences at helped me to enjoy the support of women thriving with this therapy, including HER2 survivors I later met in person. Along with chemo, surgery and radiation, this miracle drug has kept me going.

Even so, hamsters and other rodents have given their lives so I might live. How do I feel about that? My first pet hamster, a Syrian hamster, was a gift on my seventh birthday. It did not live long with me, escaping within days. A few birthdays later, Hamstey arrived. When Hamstey died after a long and precious life, I wrote my first epic poem. While Hamstey was not my last hamster, I will stop listing them (except to mention that my son enjoyed a lively pair of Roborovski hamsters during his childhood).

Unlike people who have refused vaccines because of the cell lines behind their manufacture, and as mindful as I am about animal experimentation, I did not contemplate rejecting my biological cancer treatment because Chinese hamster ovaries had been used to humanize the drug so it could help my human body to heal. I trusted that labs had exercised ethical considerations during development of the drug. I also gave thanks. Not long after I finished treatment, in fact, I made a trip to a pet store to pay homage to some Chinese hamsters, though I did not buy one.

It may sound childlike of me, but I shared a silent moment with these critters to give their kin, and the researchers who found a way to help them serve humanity on a larger scale, thanks for my life. Even more important than hamsters, though, the humans (scientists, lab technicians, doctors, participants in clinical trials, etc.) behind the development of the drug deserve my fullest thanks. I hope to make my life worth it to everybody — and every creature – who developed trastuzumab, which has opened the door for similar therapies.

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