Southern Research physicist Jim Tucker has spent most of his career tackling the challenges that must be overcome to make space flight possible, so he knows all about the organization’s important contributions to the Space Shuttle and other programs.
Tucker has also seen first-hand the impact of Southern Research’s breakthrough work in a completely different field – cancer research.
His 23-year-old son, Allen, is alive today thanks to the pioneering work of Southern Research scientists who discovered the fundamentals of chemotherapy and helped developed the drugs used in his treatment.
“It has always been cemented in my mind that Southern Research is one of those bastions of research that changes your life,” Tucker said. “That was never in doubt, but this has been reaffirming for me in a powerful way.”
The story begins in August 1996, when Allen was just 3. Though he was born with Down Syndrome, Allen was a healthy child until Acute Lymphatic Leukemia (ALL) struck. At first, he was lethargic and increasingly withdrawn. Then the pain started.
The pain was so severe that Allen let out a scream when the family car hit a speed bump on the way to Children’s Hospital. By this time, Allen was running a fever and had completely stopped moving.
Tucker and his wife, Pam, were terrified when the doctor diagnosed ALL. The chemotherapy, though, restored hope.
“It was a virtual resurrection. If you’ve ever seen a child with leukemia about to start the treatment, it’s frightening,” Tucker said. “Allen was motionless and had a morphine drip. Then they started treatment, and within two or three days, he was back. It was amazing.”
Tucker said Allen’s treatment included doses of methotrexate, 6-Mercaptopurine (6-MP), and Leucoveron — three medicines that Southern Research played a prominent role in developing.
Southern Research scientists discovered a superior method for producing methotrexate, a drug that is used against a range of autoimmune disorders, and the organization held a patent on Leucoveron’s method of production. In addition, Southern Research scientists performed the fundamental biochemistry work on 6-MP, an important chemotherapy drug.
“That was quite remarkable to me,” Tucker said.
Later, Tucker began to understand that Southern Research’s groundbreaking work on chemotherapy had played an even more significant underlying role in Allen’s treatment. That’s because Southern Research scientists led by Howard Skipper decades earlier had established many of the principles that paved the way for effective chemotherapy.
Skipper and his team showed that every malignant cell has to be eradicated to ensure patient survival and that chemotherapy drugs given in combination can overcome resistance. Skipper also introduced the concept that a dose of chemotherapy kills a specific percentage of cancer cells rather than a specific number – an important treatment insight.
“The work Howard Skipper did here essentially led to the cure for leukemia,” said Tucker, who heads Southern Research’s materials research group. “I’m a physicist, so statistics are big to me, and it was his statistical revelations that cured my son’s cancer. He made a huge impact on a lot of lives, including mine.”
17 YEARS LATER
After Allen left Children’s, he still faced a grueling 2.5 years of chemotherapy to make sure every last cancer cell was gone. Once the treatment was complete, Tucker had a message for his Southern Research co-workers.
“We want to remind people here that without their work, our son would still be in tremendous pain, battling a disease that could have taken his life,” he said in a 1999 interview for SRItems, the internal publication.
Back then, Tucker wouldn’t use the word “cure” because he feared a recurrence. Today, Allen attends an adult special-needs program three times a week, where he can enjoy art and music. He remains cancer-free.
“The concept of a cure is something I can talk about 17 years later. He was 6 when he came off chemotherapy; now he’s 23,” Tucker said. “That’s where Southern Research comes in.”