Student, Heal Thyself

February 3, 2004

Heather Heilman
Phone: (504) 865-5714

While there's never a good time to be diagnosed with cancer, there's a special cruel irony when a young man hears the bad news a week before he's scheduled to start medical school.

studentThat's what happened to Andy Martin in the fall of 2000. He was diagnosed with sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma, an extremely rare and extremely malignant cancer of the sinuses.

Standard treatments are not very effective with this type of carcinoma, and few patients survive more than five years after diagnosis. Martin delayed medical school a year for surgery and treatment, after which the cancer retreated and he completed two years of school.

But after finishing his surgery rotation this fall, he went to his doctor for a routine followup exam and learned that it had returned. The other irony is that otolaryngology is Martin's main field of interest.

"If I had some weird bone cancer of the big toe, I think I'd just take a year off and go rock-climbing," Martin said. "But my own personal case is phenomenally interesting to me, and not just because it's vital to my own survival. It's a really fascinating and rare disease, and there's the chance to make some sort of impact."

So Martin approached Tyler Curiel, section chief of hematology and medical oncology at Tulane, with the idea of growing his own cancer cells in the lab with the hope of finding a treatment.

"I always wanted to find out if I had any inclination for research," Martin said. "I'll never be more motivated than I am right now." Curiel was the right person to ask for help--he is internationally recognized for his studies of the ways tumors grow, metastasize and evade the immune system. But he was initially opposed to the idea because of the surgery required to extract the cells.

There was also some question of whether such a study would pass muster with Tulane's Institutional Review Board. But when he was assured that the cells could be extracted with a minimum of risk, and that review-board approval was not necessary for Martin to study his own cells, Curiel agreed to take on the project.

"Andy's tumor is growing in the lab right now," he said. "We've got techniques that weren't available even five years ago that we hope will allow us to identify a treatment for this cancer. It's very possible that we'll find something that will extend his life."

Martin estimates that between 100 and 200 Americans are diagnosed with his particular form of cancer each year. It is often treated in the same way as squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. But it's not clear that the two cancers have much in common. "It's clear that SNUC behaves a lot more aggressively and has long-term outcomes that are much worse," Martin said. "It seems fairly evident that there are behavioral differences that are worth identifying and targeting."

The best-case scenario would be discovering homogeneity with another form of cancer with established and effective treatments. "Something extremely common with billions of dollars of NIH research, I hope," Martin said.

Research is expensive, but Curiel is helping to raise money and awareness for Martin's project. In the past Curiel has used his endeavors as an ultramarathon runner to raise money for cancer research. In a fundraising effort dedicated to Martin, last month Curiel attempted to break the world record for a distance run over a 24-hour period while dribbling a basketball. He's used to running for long periods, but running while dribbling is "surprisingly hard." (Inside Tulane went to press before Curiel's marathon).

In the meantime, Martin is getting on with the business of taking care of himself. "I have a patient population of one," he said. "I've got to do my best with that." To donate to Martin's research go to

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