Steve Frederico wanted to go to the College of Charleston to play baseball. He'd spent most of his childhood on a baseball field, traveling around the country with his club team, dreaming that one day he might make it to the major leagues.
All that changed his freshman year when he signed up for an introductory neuroscience course.
"I was always interested in science, but I was really bad at it in high school because I was a jock and it wasn’t cool to study," said Frederico, 21, a rising junior at the college. "I came here, and I enrolled in a neuroscience first-year learning course. I fell in love with it."
So he quit the baseball team and never looked back. This summer, Frederico is fostering his newfound passion in a lab at the Medical University of South Carolina. He earns $11 an hour running experiments on brain cancer cells called glioblastoma — the same deadly type of tumor that doctors recently diagnosed in Sen. John McCain's brain.
Glioblastoma tumors are malignant and, according to the American Brain Tumor Association, patients who are diagnosed with one typically live about 14 months. Children diagnosed with glioblastomas tend to live slightly longer than adults, but making such diagnoses even more difficult, treatment options for these tumors are highly toxic and don't work very well.
In some cases, doctors may try surgery first, but glioblastomas tend to re-emerge unexpectedly in other parts of the brain, even after resection. They are unpredictable and aggressive.
"It’s very, very unlikely that you’re going to live long after that tumor and no major advancements have been made within the last several years," Frederico said. "It's a nasty, nasty tumor."
Part of the problem in treating these tumors, he explained, is that the blood-brain barrier prevents chemotherapy drugs from precisely targeting the cancerous cells. That's why Frederico and the team at MUSC have developed a "nano-particle," small enough to pass through that blood-brain barrier, to deliver the chemotherapy straight to the site of the tumor.
"We look at it much like a post office letter," said Ann-Marie Broome, the director of a nano-therapeutics research lab at MUSC and Frederico's boss. "The actual vehicle for the drug is the envelope. The actual drug is the letter. We label the letter and put a stamp on it and then it finds its way to the house address. That’s the easiest way to describe it."
Temozolomide, or TMZ, is a cancer drug already approved by the FDA to treat glioblastomas. Broome, Frederico and other researchers are hoping to improve its efficacy by targeting the drug straight to the glioblastoma tumor, thereby making it more likely that the tumor will shrink and reducing the drug's significant side effects, such as hair loss, vomiting and weight loss.
So far, Frederico said, the results in the lab are encouraging.
"I’m learning more about this tumor each and every day I step in there," he said.
After college, Frederico wants to take a year off and work in the research lab full-time. Then, he'd like to go to medical school, hoping one day to practice pediatric neurosurgery.
"When I played baseball, it was all about me, me, me. The goal was, long term, to make a lot of money, buy nice cars, be famous. That’s kind of why I got sick of baseball, and I walked away from it was because I had finally had my fill of being so self-absorbed," he said. "The goal for me out of this — I’m not running around saying I can cure glioblastoma, because that’s insane — it’s just extending life. Twelve to 15 months is not acceptable at all."