Personal Stories

Dr. John Penta, researcher

Dr. John Penta,
Purdue Alumnus, Ph.D. '68 Chemistry
Clinical Cancer Research Scientist
National Institutes of Health  (retired)

I wanted to apply basic science cancer research to cancer patients and needed to undergo additional training in cancer medicine. I was accepted as a Senior Staff Fellow in the Division of Cancer Research and Treatment of the National Cancer Institute, and studied more at Johns Hopkins University Oncology Center and Duke University Comprehensive Cancer Center. My research involved cancer patients with Stage IV disease (metastatic disease) who had short life-expectancy. I participated in 75 clinical research trials with new investigational cytotoxic chemotherapeutic agents and also biologic response modifiers (BRMs) intended to modulate patients' immune systems.

As part of a national program, I participated with a team of researchers who discovered an active chemotherapy treatment regimen intended for young children and teenagers afflicted with usually fatal osteogenic sarcoma. Other clinical research included reduction of severe nausea and vomiting in advanced cancer patients by blocking receptors in the part of the brain called the chemoreceptor trigger zone (CTZ). Still other research involved learning about cellular mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA signal pathways for initiation of primary tumors and dissemination of metastatic cancer.

Countless signaling pathways exist among cells in all tissues that arise from our genomic profile. For example, pancreatic cancer patients often contain more than 60 genetic alterations operating along at least 12 separate signal pathways.

By the end of December 2009, nearly 1.5 million Americans will have been newly diagnosed with cancer. Over 562,000 Americans (more than 1,500 each day) will have died of cancer. Basic research and clinical research scientists face formidable barriers for alleviating the pain and suffering that cancer extracts from our society. We should study not only mutated genes in cancer cells, but also deleted genes, extraneous genes, and hyperactive and hypoactive genes.

In addition, societal issues cannot be ignored. Over the next 20 years, from 2010 to 2030, cancer among Americans is projected to increase from 1.6 million to 2.3 million new cases, an increase of nearly 45%. Yet, cancer research funding in the United States was drastically reduced over the past eight years. Despite the fact that about 200,000 American women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, and that we are still uncertain about how best to treat women with advanced breast cancer, our government nonetheless chose to allocate only $ 573 million annually for breast cancer research. This amount comprised an annual expenditure of $ 2,860 per breast cancer patient.

The lay public is not generally aware that basic science research drives clinical medicine. Without basic science research, advances and applications in medicine will falter. The Purdue University Center for Cancer Research occupies a unique position to modify and reduce cancer suffering in the United States because of the Center's strong faculty, ability to integrate research resources, and the solid leadership of its Director, Dr. Timothy Ratliff.