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Dr. Young Ko believes that she has found a cure for cancer. Using an inexpensive drug named 3-bromopyruvate, the Johns Hopkins University researcher was able to eliminate advanced liver cancer in lab animals. Earlier this year, after her work was profiled by the Baltimore Sun, dozens of cancer patients and their families contacted the medical school to ask when human trials would begin. Not any time soon, it would seem. Ko’s research is now at the center of a bitter employment dispute between the researcher and the university. Ko sued Johns Hopkins and four colleagues in June, claiming she was discriminated against and her research was impeded because she is an Asian woman with a successful project. Among the allegations in the 108-page lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland, are accusations that Ko’s colleagues stole her research. “We are interested to learn why Hopkins has not done all it can to support Dr. Ko in her research,” says Charles Piven, a solo practitioner in Baltimore and one of Ko’s attorneys. Johns Hopkins denies the allegations, stating in court papers that it declined to renew Ko’s three-year contract “in view of her lack of collegiality, cooperation, insubordination, and her hostile and insulting attacks directed at . . . senior faculty members.” Philip Roberts, an attorney in the Office of the Vice President and General Counsel at Johns Hopkins, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. Ko’s employment case is brimming with allegations of back-stabbing and infighting at one of the nation’s premier medical schools and offers a window into how money, publicity, and internal politics can influence research of a disease that kills more than half a million people a year. In the meantime, the dispute may have stalled potentially life-saving research. Joanne Merrill, whose 50-year-old husband was diagnosed with stage-four prostate cancer two years ago, says university officials told her in April that Johns Hopkins was just months away from beginning human trials. Earlier this month, Merrill says, those same officials told her clinical trials were at least two years away. “It went from imminent to two years,” Merrill says. “I just didn’t understand the disparity. It was like everything had stopped.” OUT OF THE BOX According to her lawsuit, Ko joined Johns Hopkins in 1991 as a researcher in the lab of Dr. Peter Pedersen, a well-known scientist and professor in the department of biological chemistry. For the first nine years, most of her work involved the study of cystic fibrosis. In 2000, Dr. Jean-Francoise Geschwind, an associate professor in the department of radiology, approached Pedersen and asked him to find a new drug to fight liver cancer. Liver cancer is almost always fatal, according to the American Cancer Society, because by the time it is diagnosed, it is usually too late to treat it. Statistics show that the five-year survival rate for liver cancer is just 7 percent. As a student at Washington State University, Ko, who immigrated to the United States from South Korea in 1982, had worked with 3-bromopyruvate (3-BrPA) and thought it might just be the anti-cancer agent they were seeking. The researchers injected the compound into arteries around the liver tumors in rabbits. Their study concluded that a single injection of 3-BrPA blocked the sugar that tumors need to survive while leaving the healthy parts of the liver alone. That study’s success helped Ko land a three-year assistant professor position with the university in the summer of 2002. Her offer letter stated that in order for her to be considered for tenure, she must secure research funding covering 70 percent of her salary, which was $60,000. The letter also stated she would be given lab space, which Ko claims is essential to secure grants. But in her suit, Ko says she never received the space and, as a result, lost out on a National Institutes of Health grant. Despite not having space of her own, Ko continued to experiment with 3-BrPA � using space in Pedersen’s laboratory. By early 2003, Ko began using the drug to treat liver cancer in rats. Later that year she was invited to apply for a grant from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, to expand her research and test the drug on breast cancer tumors. The $250,000 Komen grant is awarded solely on the merit of the proposed research and, unlike most grants, does not ask for verification that scientists have their own lab space. Still, before applying in 2003, Ko sought assurances that she would be provided lab space if awarded the grant. In a letter, Dr. Robert Gayler, interim chairman of the radiology department, said she would receive space as long as it was approved by Dr. Chi Dang, vice dean for research. By that time, however, according to Ko’s complaint, Dang had started conducting his own research using 3-BrPA after learning about the success of the rabbit study. Ko alleges that Dang’s position at the university, as well as his control of lab space, gave him an unfair advantage in seeking grants and other funding. In February 2004, Ko finished her rat study with spectacular results. Ko found that advanced cancers in all 19 rats she treated with 3-BrPA disappeared within four weeks with no harmful side effects. Tumors equivalent to the size of a cantaloupe in humans melted away, Pedersen says, using about $5 worth of the drug. Ko’s results were presented at a medical conference organized by the National Cancer Institute, and her study was published in the medical journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. In March 2004, Ko learned she had received the Komen grant � money that could help Ko continue her research and her push for tenure. But when she asked for lab space to conduct her research, Ko claims she was rebuffed and accused of impropriety by her superiors. Dang claimed Ko misled the Komen Foundation by not telling it that she did not have lab space, according to Ko’s complaint. In a series of e-mails, Ko defended her actions and demanded an apology. Instead, she got several reprimands and was ordered to appear before the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program for an evaluation. Ko refused and was told that her three- year contract would not be renewed when it expired in June 2005. THE HOPEFULS In January, Ko got a public boost when her work was profiled in the Baltimore Sun. Ko, who declined to comment for this article, told the Sun that working in the lab was her life. “When you try and study science there are so many areas that you have never seen, it’s just like traveling,” Ko said. “Every field, every aspect, every topic you touch is giving you more excitement.” In the article, Ko’s research was described as both noteworthy and surprising. Her 100 percent success rate using a widely available compound was seen as remarkable. “To have this kind of complete regression is impressive,” says Dr. David Hockenbery of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, who is not affiliated with Ko’s research. He says when her work was presented at a medical conference in Bethesda, Md., last year, it was met with “quite a bit of interest.” But Hockenbery and others caution that Ko’s work is still in the preliminary stages. In addition to knowing if the drug works on other types of tumors, Hockenberry says, the medical community would also want to know how it functions. “They have made an important observation,” says Dr. Jerome Yates, national vice president for research at the American Cancer Society. “But it is a big hurdle to move from these preliminary observations to working in humans.” He warns there have been other drugs that have worked in animals but have had a toxic effect on humans. The Sun article also noted how major medical journals declined to have Ko’s work peer-reviewed and experts at the National Institutes of Health and Harvard University didn’t even bother to respond. Still, when the article was published, cancer patients and their families from all over called Johns Hopkins asking when 3-BrPA would be tested on humans. Pedersen, Ko’s mentor and research partner, says that anywhere from 25 to 50 people called or wrote asking about the study. Another 10 visited the lab in person, he says. Seattle resident Janice Miller called Pedersen’s lab in May asking when human trials of the drug would begin. Miller’s husband has liver cancer, and she was looking for anything to keep him alive. “For us there was no hope,” she says. “The doctors gave him six months to one year to live.” Miller says that Ko told her she was in the process of trying to get permission from the Food and Drug Administration to start human trials and that approval could come in as soon as one month. Elissa McCrary, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society, says terminal patients often seek out experimental research. “They are always looking for something � anything,” she says.”They are desperate . . . and latch onto any hope they can.” But Yates says that hope can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, patients are intelligent enough to seek out potential treatments, he says, but on the other, they are not able to filter the information in such a way as to know what is relevant and what is not. PROFITS AT STAKE In her suit, Ko says that both Dang and Geschwind tried to exploit her research to further their own careers. (In response to calls, Johns Hopkins said that neither doctor can comment on the litigation.) Ko claims that both men are continuing their own research using her discoveries. In addition, she says that Johns Hopkins misled her into thinking the university would continue to fund her research if she provided certain information about how 3-BrPA works. But the dispute isn’t just about Ko’s career. There are financial implications, says Elaine Bredehoft, a partner at Charlson, Bredehoft & Cohen in Reston,Va., and another of Ko’s attorneys. Since 3-BrPA is cheap and easy to make, there is potential for huge profits if it goes to market, Ko’s attorneys say. It could also eliminate the need for other expensive treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. “The world considers a four-month delay in the progression of the disease a significant discovery,” Ko’s lawyer Piven says. “We have something that can eradicate cancer.” Ko filed her suit in June and sought a preliminary injunction to keep her job. Judge William Quarles Jr. denied the motion. In addition, Johns Hopkins has filed a motion to dismiss the suit and a motion to strike parts of Ko’s complaint that the university says are “immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous.” Quarles has not ruled on those motions. Pedersen, however, arranged for Ko to work as a research associate in his lab, a move that so far has allowed her to keep the Komen grant. “Nothing can stop her,” Pedersen says. “She is determined to see this research through.” Johns Hopkins, however, may have other plans. Earlier this month, Joanne Merrill says she called the university for an update on Ko’s research. She was told it was continuing � but under a different researcher.
Bethany Broida can be contacted at [email protected].

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