Thursday, April 8, 2010

Medical Student Takes On A Rare Disease -- His Own


NEW ORLEANS -- Andy Martin stared so hard at the cells he was examining that the microscope left marks around his eyes.

A third-year medical student, Mr. Martin is a researcher in a cancer lab at Tulane University Health Sciences Center. The cancer cells under scrutiny are the same ones growing inside him -- in his nose, behind his eyes, pressed against his brain.

Mr. Martin, 31 years old, doesn't expect to find a cure for his cancer, sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma, or SNUC. The disease is almost always fatal. Only 100 cases are documented in the medical literature.

When he was diagnosed, Mr. Martin took up surfing, considered dropping out of school and checked out the price of an air ticket around the world. But then he decided that before he died, he wanted to understand SNUC better. So, for the past six months, while his doctors have been trying to kill the cells that are destroying his body, he has been trying to grow the same cells in the laboratory.

"If I don't study it," he says, "there is no one else that is going to do it."

According to the National Cancer Institute, the most common form of cancer in the U.S. is breast cancer, with 2.2 million people living with the disease in 2000, the latest year for which figures are available. Some 1.6 million have prostate cancer, and another million people have colon and rectum cancer.

While more than $1 billion is spent on cancer research every year, there isn't a lot of money available to do very narrow, specialized research. There was little being done for SNUC. Mr. Martin and other researchers hope that knowledge gained from studying rare cancers such as SNUC may help gain insight into how other cancers grow.

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