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Righting A Wrong

Researcher David Pearce works every day to unlock the mysteries behind rare childhood diseases.

As director of Sanford Children’s Health Research Center, Dr. Pearce has spent his career in laboratories trying to find the answers to neurodegenerative conditions that strike children.

But a far more commonplace disease touched his family. Dr. Pearce’s older sister, Jennifer, died at age 49 from breast cancer. The world-class researcher is proud to be part of an organization fighting the condition that took his sister.

“What we’re developing here will help other families,” says the research leader. “It’s gratifying to be part of an organization that is working to fight this, to right this wrong.”

Pioneering research

Sanford Health is leading the charge in breast cancer research with the BioBank, a genetic repository that will accelerate research into this disease, Dr. Pearce says. Last year, Sanford established a DNA library of blood samples that will be used by researchers.

The Sanford Health BioBank, housed in a 1,600 square-foot laboratory, provides central storage of blood and DNA samples along with medical histories collected from thousands of people. Instead of having to look for volunteers for each new research study, scientists will have access to everything they need without having to take the time to recruit people to participate in each research project.

Not only does the biobank provide easy access for research, but it also collects samples from people with a variety of backgrounds – some have been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, while others may simply have a family history of the disease.

A path to better care

“The goal is for us to understand the genetics behind breast cancer, to understand what actually happens as the cancer develops,” Dr. Pearce says. “Through clinical trials we’ll be able to serve our patients even better. We’re in the process of reinventing breast cancer care for all patients.”

Sanford scientists will use clinical trials to come up with better treatments and therapies to fight breast cancer, the researcher says. And eventually, they hope to make sure families like his won’t lose sisters, mothers and friends to the disease.

When his sister Jennifer was diagnosed, Dr. Pearce lived far away, across an ocean. Growing up in England, his sister always looked out for him when they were children. By the time of her breast cancer diagnosis at age 44, she was a loving mother to two teenage sons.

“She was a loving, caring kind of person who always wanted to take care of other people,” he says. “That’s just the way she was.”

Jennifer’s story

Jennifer’s cancer was found fairly early and was successfully treated. However, several years later a routine checkup showed that the cancer had returned and spread to her liver and lungs.

As a researcher and scientist, he felt frustrated that there was little he could do to help his own sister. His own work was in an entirely different field.

Dr. Pearce is one of the world’s experts on Batten Disease, a devastating disease that leads to cognitive and physical decline caused by a genetic defect. It strikes about two to four children out of every 100,000 born in the United States.

Research scientists, in general, tend to be competitive about their work, but everyone at Sanford Research want to help beat breast cancer, he says. While he doesn’t work directly in the lab on this disease, Dr. Pearce now assists in the breast cancer research efforts through his work as an administrator with Sanford Research.

“When you see someone you care for fighting a disease, you feel helpless,” Dr. Pearce says. “It’s a justice in my life now that I’m able to help by being involved this way with Sanford Research.”

Posted Date: July 2012