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Research is personal for patient with brain tumor

CHICAGO -- Walking into a packed waiting room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, PJ Lukac delivered the unthinkable news to his parents: "I'm going to die."...

CHICAGO -- Walking into a packed waiting room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, PJ Lukac delivered the unthinkable news to his parents: "I'm going to die."

He had suffered periods of confusion and other symptoms, so his mother had insisted that he get a neurological scan at Northwestern. "I thought it was going to be a waste of money," he said.

Now, sobbing with his mother and father while a room full of strangers looked on, the second-year medical student wrestled with the surreal logic of the news. He couldn't have glioblastoma, he reasoned, because 23-year-olds simply don't contract that particularly vicious, aggressive tumor.

In medical terms, Lukac was faced with a worst-case scenario on that December day. Glioblastoma, the same rare cancer Sen. Edward Kennedy suffers from, is stubbornly resistant to traditional treatments. The tumors can balloon to the size of an apple in a matter of months.

But after absorbing the truth of his situation, his outlook began to change. Lukac quickly grew tired of the fear and worry that showed on the faces of friends and relatives when they realized he had a potentially deadly brain tumor.


So within weeks of his diagnosis, he went looking for Dr. Markus Bredel, director of the Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute research program.

"Some people think cancer has like a mystical power all its own," said Lukac, 24, of St. Charles, Ill. "But (Bredel) has really reduced it to a set equation, with these genes as variables. Like any equation, I think it has a solution, which is the gist of his research."

Lukac told Bredel that he wanted to work in his lab, dismantling the disease's mystique and, in the process, try to save his own life.

Bredel took him on as an assistant researcher, and for the last few months Lukac has helped conduct many of the experiments that one day could lead to breakthroughs in treating his disease.

"The last two or three months, being here and doing what I've been able to do, it just feels great," Lukac said recently. "It sounds really weird, but it has been two or three of the best months of my life."

Helping himself

With recent news that Bredel's lab identified 31 genes key to the formation of glioblastoma tumors, Lukac has helped strike a blow for his own survival.

The findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.


Bredel has been inspired -- astounded might be a better description -- by Lukac's focus in the lab. He knows that his young colleague, who attended Georgetown University and Columbia University medical school, has a particularly strong reason to help with the project.

"Having PJ around us as a co-worker and friend," he said, "is something that motivates our whole team in trying to be as quick and good as possible in finding that needle in a haystack, or needles in the haystack, to make progress in the treatment ... from which, hopefully, PJ will be able to benefit.

"I admit I don't know, if I had this disease, if I could be around it on a daily basis in a setting like this."

Lukac, a slight man who has worn his hair short since he lost some of it to chemotherapy treatments, vividly recalls getting that life-changing MRI.

At the time, he was more worried that the seizures he began suffering in September -- heralded by a frustratingly unrecognizable tune in his head and a strong sense of deja vu -- were symptoms of schizophrenia.

Reality sets in

During the test, the reality of what he was facing began to dawn on him.

"It was weird. I knew something was wrong when I was in the MRI room and the tech came out. He was like, 'This is your first MRI, right?' " Lukac recalled. "And they originally told me it was going to take a half-hour, so 45 minutes later I was thinking, 'This is getting kind of long.' "


Then he heard a nurse whisper to another, "Make sure he doesn't leave."

A neurologist called him and said, "It looks like you have a brain tumor."

Lukac acknowledges some equally challenging moments in the lab, a long room divided into stations where researchers conduct various cancer experiments.

"I'm not going to lie, working in the lab was very surreal in the beginning," he said. "They talk about median survival, which is 14.2 months. They talk about recurrence like it's inevitable. And that hits you in the gut."

Then there's the question of his prognosis.

Bredel's research postulates that the speed with which a particular glioblastoma tumor will grow can be predicted by the presence or absence of certain mutated genes in the tumor.

The information soon could help scientists develop medications targeting specific genes, allowing doctors to tailor treatments to their patients.

Understanding all this, Lukac has ordered colleagues in the lab not to tell him the specific genetic makeup of his tumor.

He knows it has been profiled genetically in the lab. "I choose not to know," he said.

Sometimes, when his resolve weakens, Lukac tries to probe a co-worker about his situation.

"She keeps a straight face and gives me no response, which is good," he said. "But she tells me I'm going to live forever."

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