If research doctors were given the same attention professional athletes and sports teams receive from odds-makers, Dr. Jason Weber would be a good bet. In fact, after spending time in his lab at BJC Institute of Health at Washington University School of Medicine, one may conclude he’s among the favorites to knock out breast cancer, once and for all.
This spring I was with a production crew to interview the veteran research doctor for a mission video for Bridget’s Brigade. The American Cancer Society recommended him for the video, and I soon learned why.
Dr. Weber felt at home in the lab. He interacted with his research assistants with a cool sense of urgency—friendly, upbeat, yet intent to get things done quickly and efficiently. Easy to talk to, he possessed an uncanny ability to articulate and distill the most complicated medical concepts into something digestible, even comprehendible. He could’ve been a radio or television show host.
Mostly, Dr. Weber was passionate about his work. “I don’t want my daughters to ever have to deal with breast cancer,” said the father of two daughters and one son.
Dr. Weber always had an interest in science. His dad was a medical doctor, and though he admired his work, the prospect of being on call was of no interest. Moreso, the lure of discovery drove him to pursue a career in medical research. The Edwardsville High School graduate earned his BS in Biotechnology at Bradley University, where he also played Division-1 soccer, before getting his PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology at Saint Louis University.
“I really fell in love with lab work,” he said. “It was an opportunity to use my interest in science and make an impact.”
He quickly made the most of that opportunity.
A Rising Star
Early in his career, Dr. Weber worked on the cutting edge of cell-cycle regulation as a postdoc at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, where his team discovered a key tumor suppressor. In 2001, Washington University in St. Louis hired him to work in the then-new molecular-oncology division, where researchers were mixing genomics with cancer biology and making the translational jump to the clinic. Breast cancer was an area where his team could make a big impact clinically.
His big break came in 2002, when he was named a Pew Scholar. The Pew Charitable Trusts, headquartered in Washington, DC, provides generous funding and convenes scholars to collaborate and exchange ideas.
“I was interacting with a diverse group of Pew scholars, which helped my lab team think outside the box and explore new techniques,” he said. “We started going in many different directions, which led to an influx of money between 2007 and 2008.”
Dr. Weber’s lab seeks to understand the basic mechanisms behind tumor cell growth and proliferation. As principal investigator on numerous grants, his lab laid the foundation for how major tumor suppressors prevent tumor formation by targeting cellular growth pathways. It is just one area in an exploding—and exciting—array of cancer research.
One relatively recent discovery in the research industry is CRISPR (pronounced ‘crisper’ and short for ‘Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats’). It’s a method of genome engineering that allows researchers to target specific stretches of genetic code and to edit DNA at precise locations. CRISPR is essentially Photoshop for the human genome, and eventually, it may make it possible to correct mutations at exact locations in the human genome to treat genetic causes of disease.
Today is a renaissance in medical research. Every day new knowledge is gained and shared, and mini discoveries are made. Like the many fibrils that compose muscle fiber, it is they, the quiet, seemingly meaningless leaps—small and insignificant alone—that combine to create the possibility for a major breakthrough.
The work Dr. Weber is doing is deeply personal to me. It’s because of people like him my wife is alive today.
Diagnosed in 2007 with advanced HER-2 positive breast cancer with several large tumors, Bridget had no family history of cancer. She was just 30, fit, and in good health. Now she was among thousands of women enduring an oppressively aggressive cancer. The odds were not in her favor—in fact, the vast majority of women in her situation had not survived.
Herceptin, a drug discovered by Dr. Dennis Slamon of UCLA, had been approved by the FDA just months before Bridget’s diagnosis. Her oncologist at St. Luke’s Hospital, Dr. Daniel Cuevas, said Herceptin provided hope, and with it, he was aiming for a “grand slam” with her treatment. Over a period of 18 months, Bridget endured highly aggressive chemotherapy, double mastectomy surgery and comprehensive radiation. Miraculously, the Herceptin, working in concert with the chemotherapy, eliminated the tumors prior to her surgery and radiation. Dr. Cuevas, thanks to Dr. Slalom’s discovery of Herceptin, hit the ball out of the park.
We were incredibly grateful to Bridget’s medical team and everybody who helped us along the way, yet we were left wondering: what if she had been diagnosed a year or two earlier? This thought motivated us to do everything in our power to support the life-saving work of breast cancer research.
As I've learned more about the research environment, however, it's became clear support is needed today more than ever.
Funding a Way
I recently visited Dr. Weber at the BJC Institute of Health to learn more about his work, but instead of seeing him in the lab, energetically moving about and chatting with his assistants about scheme and protocol and procedure, he was in his corner office at the end of a long hallway working on his computer. Though convenient for our conversation, it seemed odd to see him not in the lab, like a standout athlete sitting on the bench.
I soon learned this is now how Dr. Weber spends most of his time at work: on the computer, hour after long hour, applying for grants.
This work is critical, though, as funding has not kept pace with research. The National Institute of Health and the National Cancer Institute, the main pipelines to research funding, have flat-lined over the past 10 years and now support less than 10 percent of research projects throughout the country.
I wondered: where is the outcry? In any other industry, there would be rebellion. “My greatest fear is that by trimming the fat, we're starting to hit muscle,” said Dr. Weber. “Labs with 10 to 15 people that are doing solid work are getting the squeeze.” About 10 years ago, Dr. Weber had 18 research assistants on his team. Now he has 8.
Despite Dr. Weber’s optimism in the field of breast cancer research—noting that the ability to far better manage the disease is well within reach, even in the foreseeable future—he remains deflated by the lack of funding.
“The American Cancer Society and other organizations are critical to filling that gap in funding really creative, risk-taking science that’s going to provide the chance to make that leap forward,” said Dr. Weber.
During our conversation, I felt like I was watching a Cardinals game with Yadi Molina confined to the bench to do something that, though not menial, grossly underutilized his talent. Perhaps he was an assistant coach or the official scorekeeper. Dr. Weber lamented how he had to let go bright graduate students, some who were forced to pursue alternative career paths due to lack of funding, and how he loathed the multitude of creative, innovative talent that was untapped. “We spend all this money educating brilliant minds yet cannot afford to put them to work,” he said.
Despite feeling deflated like Dr. Weber, I walked away feeling more optimistic than ever. The potential to bring breast cancer to a screeching halt is within reach. It could be a few years, or just days, away. And it all rests in our own hands. Dr. Slamon was fueled by passion, determination and ingenuity, but his big discovery was only possible with funding. People who were passionate about his efforts contributed equally to the development of Herceptin. Dr. Slamon—with all due respect (he pretty much saved my wife’s life)—was also the beneficiary of dozens, even hundreds of mini discoveries that preceded him. It is these, coupled with funding, that propelled his pursuits and enabled his success.
Yes, we can cure breast cancer. Together we will.
We will because of dedicated, unrelenting people like Dr. Weber. It’s because they are contributing to that collective databank of research, day in and day out, undaunted, ever moving the needle closer to a cure. And when Dr. Weber, or another contender like him, discovers that elusive cure, his daughters—and many others—can live without worrying about the hell of breast cancer.