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Breast cancer effort gets help $2.1 million raised; Hopkins expert to fill new research post


Something called "translational research" is a hot topic in medical science these days. And it's precisely what won Dr. Nancy E. Davidson appointment to a newly endowed and decidedly unusual chair for breast cancer research at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center that was announced yesterday.

Translational research means figuring out how to do something that seems as if it should be simple but isn't: Using findings of the science laboratory to create therapies for patients, and, in turn, using patients' experiences to help guide basic scientific research.

"There are very few individuals across the country who have both the scientific knowledge and clinical experience to do this," Dr. Martin D. Abeloff, director of the oncology center, said yesterday as Dr. Davidson's appointment was being announced. Nancy Davidson is one of them."

What's unusual about the new research chair is that it wasn't the result of a large gift from a wealthy benefactor, and it won't carry anyone's name.

The chair and an associated fellowship have been created thanks to a fund-raising effort by 21 women, most of them breast cancer survivors or relatives of breast cancer patients.

Over two years the women raised $2.1 million, through a couple of teas and a lot of one-on-one appeals.

The idea for the chair was Harriet Legum's. Eight years ago, the Pikesville resident was diagnosed with breast cancer -- three years after she first began to suspect it herself. Doctor after doctor had told her she was wrong to worry about the lump on the side of her left breast. After the cancer finally was diagnosed, a doctor told her she had a year to live.

"Luckily, he was wrong," she said yesterday. "As I became stronger emotionally and started to lose some of my friends to this disease, I realized I had to do something."

She was joined by Mollye Block, who had been through a bout of Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. The two women, who have both been active in fund-raising and organizational work, became co-chairwomen of the drive.

"We're both survivors," said Ms. Block, who lives in the city. "We've been through the same crap."

They consulted with Dr. Abeloff as well as Dr. Davidson, who since 1986 has held a faculty position at Hopkins. They delivered the money a year ago, and Dr. Abeloff began a nationwide search for someone to appoint to the new chair.

Ms. Legum and Ms. Block had had someone in mind all along -- Dr. Davidson -- and in the end Dr. Abeloff's search committee came to the same conclusion.

"First of all, she is a woman," said Ms. Legum. "And she is recognized as one of the best researchers in the country. And she's saved several of my friends' lives."

The chair gives Dr. Davidson recognition for her past work, financial stability for her work, the freedom to engage in long-range planning for her future work. No longer must she spend half her time trying to line up grants.

Dr. Davidson, 41, is particularly interested in researching hormonal therapy for breast cancer. Other researchers are pursuing gene therapy and the development of a preventive vaccine for breast cancer. Some breast cancers, she said yesterday, have receptors that make them susceptible to hormonal therapy, but 30 percent to 40 percent of breast cancers do not.

Why that is, and whether the receptors in those cancer cells could be "re-expressed" -- essentially, re-opened to hormone treatment -- are questions she would hope to answer. And of the cancer cells that do have receptors, Dr. Davidson said, only half respond well to hormone treatment, and that's another puzzle.

She said she also hopes to build bridges to research scientists in other departments at Hopkins, engaging different disciplines in the fight against a disease that kills 46,000 Americans a year.

Her appointment was announced at a forum on women's health with 35 Hopkins researchers and clinicians -- one that attracted about 700 women, and that also was organized by the indefatigable Ms. Block and Ms. Legum.

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