cancer

Naked mole rats have extraordinarily long lifespans and are extremely resistant to cancer.

Photo credit: Meghan Murphy, Smithsonian's National Zoo

Rochelle "Shelley" Buffenstein has one of the world's largest, if not the largest, lab-dwelling colonies of the naked mole rat. (No one has done a worldwide tabulation, but she has 4,500 of them.) Buffenstein has spent decades studying the little subterranean-dwelling rodents. Over the years, she and her colleagues have uncovered one surprising discovery after another, which has led them to re-orient the whole field of anti-aging research.

Naked mole rats defy everything we thought we knew about aging. These strange little rodents from arid regions of Africa, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, live up to ten times longer than their size would suggest. And unlike virtually every other animal, they don't lose physical or cognitive abilities with age, and even retain their fertility up until the end of life. They appear to have active defenses against the ravages of time, suggesting that aging may not be inevitable. Could these unusual creatures teach humans how to extend life and ameliorate aging?

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Eve Herold
Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.
Photo by the National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.

Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.

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David Cox
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including BBC News, New York Times, and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidACox.
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Stacey Khoury felt more fatigued and out of breath than she was used to from just walking up the steps to her job in retail jewelry sales in Nashville, Tennessee. By the time she got home, she was more exhausted than usual, too.

"I just thought I was working too hard and needed more exercise," recalls the native Nashvillian about those days in December 2010. "All of the usual excuses you make when you're not feeling 100%."

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Christopher Johnston
Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,500 articles in publications including American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor, History Magazine, and Scientific American. His book, Shattering Silences: Strategies to Prevent Sexual Assault, Heal Survivors, and Bring Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) was published in May 2018. He is a member of the Board of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Jamie Rettinger with his now fiance Amie Purnel-Davis, who helped him through the clinical trial.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Rettinger

Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.

I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads, Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.

A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.

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Bob Roehr
Bob Roehr is a biomedical journalist based in Washington, DC. Over the last twenty-five years he has written extensively for The BMJ, Scientific American, PNAS, Proto, and myriad other publications. He is primarily interested in HIV, infectious disease, immunology, and how growing knowledge of the microbiome is changing our understanding of health and disease. He is working on a book about the ways the body can at least partially control HIV and how that has influenced (or not) the search for a treatment and cure.

David and Jen on their wedding day, and Jen undergoing treatment for her rare sarcoma.

(Courtesy David Linn)


It was 15 years ago this month, but I'll never forget those words. When my wife Jen and I asked her oncologist about our plans to start a family, he calmly replied, "Well, I wouldn't do so unless Dave is prepared to be a single father."

About 50 percent of all people with cancer have a rare type, like the one Jen was fighting.

Time stood still. The danger crystalized — we were in a battle for my beautiful bride's life, and the odds were not in our favor.

We felt every emotion expected. Anger, sadness, confusion, frustration, and especially fear. But we made a very intentional choice to take that fear, put it to the side, and do everything we could to live our lives together to the fullest.

We focused first on Jen's health and learned everything we could about MFH Sarcoma. I was with her every step of the way — for hundreds of medical appointments, six intense surgeries, and twenty different types of chemotherapy. During such a challenging time, our choice to reject fear allowed us to live our best lives. Our careers blossomed, we enjoyed several international vacations, and Jen inspired thousands of fellow patients through her blog and speeches.

When we researched treatment options we learned that Jen was not alone. About 50 percent of all people with cancer have a rare type, like the one Jen was fighting. However, rare cancers don't get the funding they desperately need so effective treatment options are hard to find. The lack of funding felt unfair — and urgent. We didn't worry about everything that can go wrong when starting a new venture. Instead, we jumped in head first and convinced a small group of friends and family to ride stationary bikes with us to raise money for rare cancer research.

Jen Goodman Linn, riding a stationary bike for Cycle for Survival.

(Courtesy David Linn)

From those humble beginnings, Cycle for Survival grew steadily. After starting from scratch, Jen and I ran Cycle for Survival on our own for two years. We quickly realized that if we wanted to help as many people as possible, we needed the best partners. In 2009, we agreed that Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center would take over the ownership of Cycle for Survival and Equinox officially became the Founding Partner. Flash forward to today, and Cycle for Survival has raised more than $220 million! I'm proud that 100% of every donation, yes every penny, goes directly into life-saving rare cancer research within six months of the annual indoor cycling events, which now take place in 17 cities nationwide.

While Cycle for Survival's trajectory was heading straight up, Jen's health struggle was devastatingly swinging up and down. With her incredible spirit and tenacity, Jen would beat the cancer through chemo and surgery, but then it would frustratingly come back again and again. After going into remission six times, it returned with such a vengeance in 2011 that even the world's leading doctors were forced to say, "I'm sorry, there's nothing more we can do."

Those were the most difficult words I've ever heard, by far. I hope no other family has to hear these crushing words.

When Jen died soon after, I didn't know what would happen to me, to my life, and to Cycle for Survival. I do remember making two very important choices at the time. First, I chose to get out of bed and put one foot in front of the other. It wasn't easy. Tears, pain, and grief would hit at any hour of the day or night. I did have a great support network of family and friends who kept me moving forward. One friend in particular changed the route of her morning runs so that I would join her and start getting back to exercising.

My second key choice was to stay involved with Cycle for Survival. At times, it was an excruciatingly difficult decision because I felt the depth of my loss each and every time I stepped into one of the events. However, it was also rewarding and energizing because I could see firsthand how many people it was helping, even though it was too late for Jen.

I began to travel across the country with the Cycle for Survival staff. My hope was to spread the word about rare cancers; along the way I met a lot of wonderful people who shared their stories with me. What I soon realized is that each of us faces obstacles in our lives. For me, it was losing the person who I wanted to spend my life with. For others, it might be challenges with their kids or in their professional lives. The common theme is that we don't have control over the fact that we have to face these challenges. But the biggest lesson I've learned is that we very much do have a choice in how we react.

I made the choice to do everything I can to help rare cancer patients and their families and it has been transformative and healing for me. The small group who rode in the first Cycle for Survival event has grown into a powerful movement of nearly 40,000 riders making a real difference. If Jen were diagnosed today, there are new treatments available– including genomic sequencing, targeted therapies, and immunotherapies – that could help her. Those weren't even options a short time ago. That's the result of funding research.

A recent Cycle for Survival event shows the passion and power of the community.

(Courtesy David Linn)

I also want to share one more choice I made. Remember that friend who changed the route of her morning runs so I could start exercising after Jen died? Well, over the years friendship grew into love, and we're now building a home together and can't wait to see what the future holds for us.

So with all that in mind I ask – when you face those inevitable challenges in your life, how will you choose to react? Remember that even in the midst of hopelessness, you can find choices. Those will be the decisions that define and guide you.

David Linn
David Linn is a co-founder of Cycle for Survival and a Principal at Oak Point Partners, a private investment firm.