Fighting cancer. Curing tremors. Developing drugs. Stemming addictions. Transplanting hands. Treating aneurysms. It’s all in a day’s work for these pioneering Minnesota doctors and researchers.
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Immunologist // University of Minnesota
Matthew Mescher didn’t set out to find a cure for cancer. He was simply interested in T cells, a type of white blood cell whose job is to recognize and attack viruses and other invaders. It turns out that T cells also recognize proteins made by cancer cells. In recent years, Mescher has isolated those protein molecules, attached them to cell-sized beads, and injected the beads into cancerous mice—successfully inspiring the rodents’ T cells to kill their tumors. The vaccine-like therapy has shown promise in people, too. In one recent trial, Mescher and colleagues injected 30 stage-IV melanoma patients with beads that were coated with proteins from their own tumors. Four years later, half of the patients were still alive, compared to the two or three that would’ve been expected to survive without treatment. Hoping to reduce the expense and effort of treating each cancer patient with custom-made beads, he is now looking to see if lab-grown cell lines will work just as well. “I think this will become a significant weapon in the battle against cancer,” Mescher says. “It has been a good example of how things that start out as very basic research can get to the clinic.”
Bacteria researcher // Mayo Clinic
There are 10 times more bacteria living in and on us than there are cells in the human body, and scientists are beginning to understand that all those bugs have massive effects on our health—both good and bad. They help us digest food and make vitamins. But, according to study after study, out-of-whack bacterial communities can lead to any number of health problems, from Crohn’s disease to psoriasis. Heidi Nelson’s team recently found that the “microbiome” of bacteria in the gut can interact with a person’s genetics to cause rheumatoid arthritis, even though the joints lie far away from the intestines. As the national-level Human Microbiome Project continues to give researchers a more detailed understanding of how bacterial residents influence our lives, Nelson anticipates that antibiotic drugs will one day be replaced by targeted therapies directed at specific genes within the bacteria unique to each of us. “I think we will completely redefine what it means to be an infectious disease,” she says. “Everything is on the table for re-discussion.”
Children’s Cancer Researcher // University of Minnesota
It was 1990, and the fate of a four-year-old boy lay in John Wagner’s hands. The patient had been fighting aggressive leukemia without success. So Wagner opted to try a procedure never attempted for this disease: an umbilical-cord-blood transplant.
The cord blood would come from the placenta of the boy’s newborn sister. Such blood is rich in stem cells, which are capable of turning into more specialized cells. Wagner believed they might help repair the boy’s ailing bone marrow.
It was a risky procedure. If I make a mistake, this child could die, Wagner thought to himself before beginning the IV infusion. Hours later, Wagner faced more than 50 reporters at a press conference, answering questions about what turned out to be a successful and paradigm-changing event.
Since then, Wagner has pushed stem-cell transplantation to heights no one thought possible. By 2000, he was transferring cord blood to patients from completely unrelated donors, and soon thereafter, he was mixing cord blood from separate donors. These days, Wagner is focused on expanding stem-cell lines in the lab, lessening reliance on cord-blood donations. By isolating cells in cord blood—cells that allow a baby to grow without rejection by its mother’s immune system—Wagner hopes to find treatments to stop organ rejection in transplant patients.
Walking through a room full of syringes, vials, and stacked cardboard containers, Wagner explains the sense of urgency that fuels the many research paths he and his colleague are forging. “You have a new idea that could change everything,” he says. “That’s the reason you see boxes lying around. Someone comes up with something and says, ‘We have to do this—now!’”
Nutrition researcher // University of Minnesota
Outside of infancy, adolescence is the period when kids grow and develop most rapidly, making their nutritional needs higher than ever. And yet, teenagers are notorious for their poor eating habits—something that Dianne Neumark-Sztainer is working tenaciously to change. “Someone once said to me, ‘Isn’t that an oxymoron: adolescent nutrition?’” she says. But it doesn’t have to be. As part of the large, long-term Project EAT, Neumark-Sztainer has helped demystify the food-related problems that afflict young people, from obesity to eating disorders. After following thousands of young Twin Citians for up to 10 years, for example, she found that teen girls who diet end up gaining much more weight than their peers who don’t resort to unhealthy weight-control tactics—landing an average of two BMI points higher, enough to make a major public-health impact. “I’d really like people thinking in a more holistic way about health,” Neumark-Sztainer says. “So we’re not just talking about fighting obesity, but really integrating a whole picture of body image, self-image, eating, weight, and health status to try to help people feel better about themselves.”
Pediatric surgeon // Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota
When Brad Feltis moved to Minnesota to work at Children’s in 2005, only a handful of doctors around the country would operate on unborn fetuses and, even then, only if death before birth was certain. Now, Feltis and his team perform dozens of fetal surgeries each year, including procedures that require cutting open the mother’s belly to fix problems with the baby’s developing bladder, lungs or spinal column—even in cases that are not life-threatening. The approval of fetal surgeries for nonlethal diseases is a development that nobody would’ve predicted even three years ago, Feltis says. The job’s biggest challenge is keeping the exquisitely sensitive human uterus from going into labor while operating on a fetus that may be as young as 17 weeks old—with instruments that are smaller than toothpicks. “You try not to think about it too much. You don’t want to make yourself nervous,” he says. “We’re right at the front of this wave of fetal surgery. It’s a very exciting, rapidly changing time. It’s a brave new frontier for surgeons.”