Ground-breaking UEA research into bone cancer inspired by death of childhood friend
Archant © 2018
The death of a childhood friend to a rare form of cancer inspired a Norwich researcher to strive for a cure for the disease - and help sufferers on our doorstep.
Darrell Green grew up in Thetford and had always had an interest in biology, and studied biological sciences at the University of East Anglia (UEA).
He studied for a PhD in molecular biology at the university, and now is unique in his study of bone cancer at the institution.
But Dr Green’s determinism to find a cure for the disease was ignited when his childhood best friend, Ben Morley, died of the disease in 2002, aged just 13.
Dr Green, 30, said: “He was my best friend, we first met on the very first day at school, we were the first ones there. We would challenge each other over who could read first, he was always one step ahead.
“We were quite in to football growing up, Thetford had two rival teams and we played on the opposite teams. He had a pain in his knee area and his parents just assumed he had been kicked playing football. But it wasn’t going away and it was getting worse, so after three weeks the swelling was ridiculous.”
Dr Green said Ben’s parents, Dave and Sara, took him to West Suffolk Hospital for an x-ray and after further tests it was confirmed he had a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma.
He was just 11 at the time.
Dr Green said: “That was the last thing they expected. He started treatment straight away. He had about six weeks of chemo but it didn’t do anything and he ended up having his leg amputated.”
Ben’s family and friends thought this would lead to him recovering, but Dr Green said the youngster then started to get pain in the area again, and tests showed the cancer had spread to his lungs.
The family were told nothing more could be done on September 11, 2001, and Ben died on February 2, 2002.
“I think I look at it differently now,” Dr Green, who lives in Norwich’s Golden Triangle, said.
“It was the first experience I had of death, now if I think about it it’s almost worse because you realise what death is, and he was a child and to think of how ill he was, you understand it now.”
Dr Green said seeing Ben lose his hair, taking him to the bathroom to be sick, and seeing him after his amputation had a profound effect on him and spurred him on in wanting to find a cure for bone cancer.
He said: “When we look at bone tumours there’s been no progress since the 1980s, and what happened with Ben gives it a bit more meaning.”
He said that while more well-known cancers such as breast cancer had lots of funding for research, which meant survival rates had soared, it was more difficult to bring in money for bone cancer research.
But nonetheless his current work to find a new treatment was not being done anywhere else in the world, as he looked into genome sequencing to try and stop bone cancer spreading and lowering the rate of limb amputation.
He added: “I never make this easy for myself and I like a challenge.”
Dr Green’s work involves examining tumours after surgery and also using technology to look for cancer cells in the blood.
He said while the first tumour identified can usually be treated, he was trying to find a way to stop the cancer spreading.
He said: “It’s the secondary tumour which ends up killing the patients. We’re finding out what genes caused those cells to resist treatment and jump out of the tumour and into the blood.
“We would think if you can keep the tumour at the site it first popped up at, we can treat it better. We’re working on a really cool drug at the moment which seems to do that, and we’re trying to get funding now.”
Dr Green said if he was able to secure funding and everything went to plan, he hoped they would be able to start trials for the drug, with patients, by 2021.
He added: “No one is doing what we’re doing, especially with the cells in the blood. What we want to do is increase survival. To me cancer is a disease of older people when your cells are tired, for a child to get cancer something has gone wrong. They’ve got their whole lives ahead of them.”
One of the tumours Dr Green had examined was removed from the leg of Sophie Taylor, from Norwich .
The five-year-old was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in January this year and underwent surgery to amputate part of her leg in April.
Dr Green, with the help of Sophie’s parents Alex and Kirsty, managed to get hold of her tumour to see what he could find out, and he invited the whole family to the laboratory at UEA to see Sophie’s tumour.
Mr Taylor said the family were keen to get involved with research to help Sophie but also to help others.
He said: “Having seen what Sophie has gone through, to stop other children going through it would be great.
“From our point of view as parents going through this, having someone like Darrell that is supporting us and backing us, it’s amazing what kind of relief it gives you.
“And optimism that if anything was going wrong there may be something else we could try, he has helped us to be a lot more positive in the last three or four months, because we’ve been able to do something for our daughter through Darrell.”
Sophie is now approaching her final treatment, after which the family will find out whether she is in remission.
To support Sophie, post a photo with #takeasophie to stick your tongue out at cancer. Share it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, check out @superstrongsophie or donate at justgiving.com/crowdfunding/superstrongsophie.
All donations will go to help Sophie in her journey, and any extra will be given to a charity for those affected by osteosarcomas and children’s cancer.