MASON, Ohio — Dr. Kimberly Koss has dedicated her life’s work to researching deadly diseases.
So when doctors diagnosed her with an advanced case of breast cancer last year, she was faced with a choice: She could pursue an aggressive course of chemotherapy that would kill the cancer cells early and then remove them through surgery, or she could keep the cancer cells clean of the chemicals and remove them as is.
Koss chose to forego the first round of therapy, knowing it would allow the deadly disease to advance and spread before surgeons could operate.
It was a sacrifice she said she made to give other women in her position the fighting chance she didn’t have.
The form of cancer eating away at Koss’ body — known as triple negative breast cancer — is one of the deadliest, most aggressive there is, one which she said researchers like her have had very little opportunity to study and develop treatments.
“It’s a type of breast cancer that is not responsive to the three conventional treatments for breast cancer,” she said. “So that changed my options when I got that diagnosis as to what could be done.
“Right now, there exists no standardized treatments — none — for triple negative breast cancer,” she said.
Knowing the battle she was facing, Koss approached fellow researcher and friend Dr. W. Keith Jones, who chairs the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Therapeutics at Loyola University in Chicago.
Jones said typical cancer drugs do not have the same effect on triple negative cancer cells because they lack a certain receptor needed to make the treatment as effective and precise as possible.
Those receptors are what allow the drug to identify and kill cancer cells while leaving most of the healthy cells alone, he said.
“(With) triple negative…we’re forced to use very, very toxic therapeutic agents (that will) also kill the normal cells in your body,” Jones said. “Some oncologists say you have to use enough drug to almost kill the patient to kill the cancer… It’s very brutal.”
Jones said there has been some research in the area, but progress has been slow. He referred to one study done in 2013 that looked at a group of 14 women with the disease. “They found they have multiple mutations, which makes it even more difficult,” he said. “For triple negative breast cancer, what they found out is each cancer is somewhat different."
Part of the problem, Jones said, is that they simply haven’t had enough tissue samples to really understand the extent of these mutations.
That’s where Koss saw an opportunity.
While she said she doesn't recommend her course of action to anyone else, she said, "When I realized what was at stake and what was possible, not even possible, not even necessarily probable — I made the choice to harvest them.”
When Jones learned of Koss’ plan, he said, “She didn’t ask my medical opinion about anything; she didn’t ask my permission. She had made the decision, so what she basically said is, ‘This is going to happen and I want you to help grow these cells…so we can do research and help people.”
Jones said his lab almost never gets cells as pure — that is, free of chemicals and medication — as hers were. After a year of research, they say they’re seeing early success in the laboratory, having grown the cells in mice, almost ready for testing.
“It’s the frontier,” Jones said. “This is how we’re going to learn what these cancers are doing on an individual basis.”
As their research moves forward, Koss has launched the Koss National TNBC Research Foundation, a launch that prompted the Rotary Club of Montgomery Blue Ash to honor Koss and Jones in a ceremony Tuesday night.
But Jones also said the progress is, of course, bittersweet.
“The first thing she told me was that she had found the cancer, and that was really devastating,” he said. “You really don’t want to hear that from someone you’ve known for 25 years and has been close since a trainee.”
Koss said the sacrifice she has made — the cancer has since spread to her chest and lungs — was well worth it, something that, as a researcher, she “needed to do.”
And her stake is not just professional.
“I have a daughter, a very precious daughter,” she said. “I have a sister, a mother, cousins and aunts — all these people are at risk and we don’t even have a test to determine if triple negative is a possibility that they would get it down the road.”
“I believe in my heart of hearts in the value of the research, and I do believe there will be good results — not good results, but results that allow us to develop treatments," she said.
Still, Koss said, the road to a treatment is a slow and costly one.
“It requires a lot of money,” she said. “Medical research these days requires a lot of money, and that’s the reason for the foundation.”
To that end, Koss’ foundation is hosting a fundraiser, “Wine, Women & Song,” Sunday night at Kidd Coffee & Wine located at 653 Reading Road in Mason.
Tickets cost $35 per person, and Koss said all the proceeds will go toward not only her and Jones’ research but other cancer research facilities, as well.