Why cancer hates pioneers like me


by Jennifer Finholt, MS

Dec 4, 2019

Using science to help sick people is what doctors and nurses do, right? At least, that’s what I thought when I was growing up. As a kid, I loved science, but I didn’t see myself entering medicine. I decided to stick with just science.

I could never have imagined that healthcare is where I would end up all these years later, especially after beginning my career at a laboratory in Iowa studying plants. There, I analyzed the genetics of plants, trying to figure how to improve crop yields and use fewer pesticides.

Basically, for the first part of my career, I focused on making plants better, not making people better — until a lifechanging transition uncovered my true calling in cancer research. It turns out helping sick people really was my passion.

The promise of immunotherapy

For the past 18 years, I’ve been honored to be part of a team at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute (BSWRI) that is pioneering innovative treatments for people with one of the most serious kinds of illness: cancer.

At the BSWRI GMP Core Lab, we are at the forefront of immunotherapy, which over the last decade has emerged as one of the most promising fields in cancer research and treatment. In our lab, we take a cancer patient’s own cells, modify them based on the cancer that individual has and then inject them back into the patient to help fight the cancer. In essence, we develop personalized vaccines that reprogram a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer. Our GMP Core Lab is currently the only one of its kind in North Texas.

I wanted to make immunotherapy a first option, not a last resort.

When I moved to Dallas from Iowa in 2001, my transition from plants to people wasn’t part of the plan. Truthfully, at the time, BSWRI simply had a job opening that fit my laboratory skill set. 

However, early on in my career here, while delivering one of our early vaccines to the clinic where it would be administered, I happened to meet the wife of the patient receiving the treatment. It was a very emotional encounter, and she thanked me with such an intense sincerity.

Related: How CAR-T therapy re-engineers your cells to target cancer

I began to truly understand that what we did in our laboratory wasn’t simply an exercise in science. It was her husband’s last option. That meant everything to her and knowing this changed how I viewed my work.

I wanted to make immunotherapy a first option, not a last resort.

My cancer fight gets personal

My work become much more personal in the years that followed, as cancer took a toll on my own family. In 2011, I lost my father to pancreatic cancer. The disease struck my family again in 2018, when my stepfather passed away after a 10-year battle with bladder cancer.

At the time, I so badly wished we could have been further along in our efforts to cure cancer. In fact, when my father had pancreatic cancer, we were only about a year away from starting a clinical trial for the condition. It was frustrating knowing that I couldn’t help him.

Every day, because of research, we get closer to detecting cancer earlier and treating it better.  

Since then, though, I’ve found comfort in knowing that other patients and families have been helped by what we’re learning from our trials, and that we are playing a role in making therapies better.

I see the progress we are making and am confident our discoveries will spare other families the heartache mine has experienced.

Every day, we learn more about the genetics of cancer. Every day, research teaches us more about why some therapies — like chemo — work on some patients but not others. Every day, because of research, we get closer to detecting cancer earlier and treating it better.  

The pursuit of knowledge is at the heart of what I do. Where there is knowledge, there will always be hope.

Related: Pancreatic cancer patient thankful for clinical trial that saved his life

There is not a treatment or therapy available to fight cancer (or any medical ailment, for that matter) that would exist today if not for research and clinical trials. We may work behind the scenes, but everyone at the GMP Lab and our other research sites across Texas cares as deeply about patients as do the doctors and nurses who care for them.

Each of us has been touched by cancer in some way, so it is truly a privilege to be part of the team that fights back.

Discover why cancer hates pioneers, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

About the Author

Jennifer Finholt, MS, is the manager of Baylor Scott & White Research Institute's Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) Core Lab.

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