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Chemistry students at Beaver Dam High School hear from cancer researcher

January 8, 2019

Beaver Dam High School chemistry teacher Melissa Hemling has brought a few notable figures into the classroom to teach her students over the years.

Dr. Steve Weitman, who helped develop the first cancer drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for children with leukemia, was front and center Monday.

Hemling said that Weitman was part of the Science Coaches program, a joint educational outreach initiative by the American Chemistry Society and American Association of Chemistry Teachers dedicated to enhancing science skills in students across the United States.

“It can help students to see how science links to the real world and can be used as a career,” Hemling said.

The students had prepared for Weitman’s visit by reading his research paper and sent questions to him.

“I’m really excited he’s coming,” student Abigail Doyle said. “He has his own articles and produced a drug that helps people. I feel anyone would want to do what he has done.”

Weitman told the students, “At a young age, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I loved science.”

He became a pediatric oncologist and has helped to develop two drugs: Campath and the chemotherapy drug Clofarabine, which was fast-tracked by the Food and Drug Administration.

“My career has always been about cancer treatments,” Weitman said. “I wanted to treat it, but better than it was done in the past.”

The drugs that were offered in the past could be described as a poison, Weitman said, so there was a big push to make new drugs to treat the disease.

“We are getting much better with them,” Weitman said.

Weitman showed the students how similar the chemical structure of Clofarbine was to part of human DNA and the role that plays in treating cancer. Clofarabine had its first study in 2000 and was approved by the FDA in 2004.

“There was nothing out there like it,” Weitman said.

There have been some other improvements with the drugs used for cancer treatment, such as repurposing other drugs.

“Hydroxychloroquine is used to treat malaria,” Weitman said. “We wondered if it could help to treat cancer. It did.”

There are studies on the human immune system and why it does not attack cancer cells, Weitman said.

“They have a cloak of invisibility that hides them from the immune system,” Weitman said.

There have been discoveries that have offered new treatments to cancer patients where they are able to kill off the cancer cells, but it does not work on all cancers, and Weitman said there is still work to be done.

Weitman urged students interested in science fields to attend summer programs for high school students.

Student Koen Jaeckel said a medical career is among his top three choices for a future career.

“I’m really excited by stuff like this,” Jaeckel said. “I find it kind of interesting.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has many programs dedicated to helping junior and senior high school students to hone into what career they might like in the future. Those interested may find out more at summer.wisc.edu/highschoolstudents.

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