Advances in Research Helped South Side Woman Survive Leukemia

National Cancer Research Month recognizes the high-quality, innovative cancer research that has made an impact on improving the lives of patients confronting the disease.

Bessie Leigh with sons Damon Cooper, left, and Dennis Dashiell.

For example, discoveries that led to the development of the first targeted cancer drug, Gleevec, have changed the prognosis and overall quality of life for patients with Philadelphia-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

The previous average survival rate from this disease in older adults was 9 months, but due to medical advances fueled by genetic discoveries, patients are achieving excellent responses.

We continue our focus on cancer research with a story about Chicago resident Bessie Leigh.

In 2005, she was diagnosed with ALL, a cancer of the white blood cells that can quickly turn fatal if left untreated. She was scared, but as a woman of faith, Leigh decided to pray and trust in her doctors.

It turns out, she was receiving her medical care from the exact institution where a landmark scientific discovery took place years earlier that contributed to the development of the life-saving treatment she needed.

In 1974, Janet D. Rowley, MD, DSc, Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, and Human Genetics, identified a chromosomal abnormality, known as a translocation, between chromosomes 9 and 22.

Parts of these chromosomes had broken off and switched places.

The defective chromosome 22 was first discovered and described in 1960 by scientists in Philadelphia and became known as the Philadelphia chromosome. But Rowley’s discovery identified the actual nature of the abnormality—a translocation—thereby establishing the genetic basis of leukemia.

Over the course of many years, these discoveries were built upon by other scientists, ultimately leading to the development of imatinib (trade name Gleevec).

The drug works by inhibiting the cancer-causing protein that results from the Philadelphia chromosome translocation. It was approved by the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration in 2001, after clinical trials showed its effectiveness and minimal side effects.

Because Bessie was among the 15-20% of adult patients with ALL who tests positive for the Philadelphia chromosome, she was able to be treated with imatinib plus chemotherapy.

Bessie’s cancer has been in remission for 8 years. She still takes daily imatinib and remains in complete remission.

She also returns for check-ups every three months.

Once facing a life-threatening disease, Bessie is convinced she survived because of her deep faith. She said, “God has been good to me, and the University of Chicago has been good to me.”

Read Bessie’s entire story in the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center’s annual report. 

About Jane Kollmer (7 Articles)
I am a writer at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center.
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