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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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One leap in logic may help a Tampa man cure the disease.
By John Barry, Times Staff Writer
Published October 14, 2007
To celebrate Dr. David Vesely's momentous medical achievement, the University of South Florida recently honored the 64-year-old widower before an audience of 65,857.
It so happened that many in the audience were half-naked and painted green and gold. The introduction took place at Raymond James Stadium on Sept. 28 during the game between the USF Bulls and the No. 5-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers. The Bulls had just gone up 21-3, causing those 65,857 Bulls fans to explode in full-throated, lubricated joy. ESPN went straight to commercial.
At that moment, USF trotted Vesely out to the10-yard line. Amid all the delirium, hardly anyone noticed the guy smiling and waving.
Oh well, what did he do anyway?
Imagining a cure for cancer, for malignancies that kill millions, is like imagining an end to war.
David Vesely is killing cancer cells by the droves in his laboratory at Tampa's James A. Haley VA Medical Center. He is killing the deadliest forms - pancreatic, breast, lung, colon, prostate and kidney cancers. He's destroying them with heart hormones he discovered in 1987. He has already used those hormones to reverse congestive heart failure and kidney failure. No one even knew about these things 20 years ago.
Vesely was just presented the Service to America Career Achievement Medal, a $10,000 award annually presented to a federal employee by the Partnership for Public Service. Among this year's finalists was NASA scientist John Mather, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics for his Big Bang research. That's the league Vesely plays in.
The award was a dramatic family triumph. Clo, Vesely's wife of 30 years, died of breast cancer in 2002, leaving Vesely a widowed father of five. Two of his sons, ages 19 and 23, still live at home with him. When he isn't killing cancer cells, Vesely cooks, does laundry and wonders where the boys took his car.
His fourth-youngest, Brian, was the first to look through a microscope at cultures of cancer cells mixed with his father's heart hormones. The cell cultures included the type of breast cancer that had killed his mother.
Before his eyes, the deadly cells disintegrated.
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Vesely is neither a heart researcher nor a cancer researcher. He's a gland man. He is chief of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at the Haley VA, and professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology at USF.
The heart is itself a gland. That's probably news to most people. The discovery was made only in 1981. The heart as a gland is Vesely's field of research. In 1987, he discovered three peptide hormones made by the heart, then in three years identified their amazing characteristics: They rid the body of excess salt - kicking in during kidney failure. They open blood vessels and regulate blood pressure - offering relief from congestive heart failure. Other scientists' investigations found that the hormones seem to stop heart cells from growing too big.
Vesely could have spent the rest of his life studying how the hormones benefit the heart and kidneys. Six heart hormones have now been identified. Kidney disease afflicts 20-million Americans. Heart disease afflicts 80-million. It's the nation's No. 1 killer: 600,000 Americans die from it every year.
But in the late 1990s, his wife, Clo, found a small tumor in her breast. It was caught early. It was removed, and the Veselys hoped for the best.
About five years later, the cancer returned, this time as a ravaging force, invading Clo's lungs and brain. It left her paralyzed. She was 55. She and David had children still in grade school and high school.
Clo Vesely died under hospice care at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.
Son Brian asked his father, "Why don't we do something on cancer?"
Vesely answered, "I'll think of a project."
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Vesely had always been intrigued by one unexplored finding: These hormones prevented heart cells from growing too big.
If the hormones regulate normal cell growth, could they alter cancer cell growth?
That sounded like the project he had promised Brian.
At the time, Vesely had no funding for cancer research. He started with his own money.
Brian, a senior at King High School, was working in his dad's lab to earn service hours for graduation. Vesely didn't have to pay him anything. (He says he fed him.) The two made cultures of cancer cells and mixed in the hormones. Brian's job was to watch them under a microscope and look for changes.
Under magnification, the blue-stained cancer cells looked blown apart. He didn't shout out or give his dad high-fives. Brian couldn't tell how significant the destruction was until he compared those cells to untreated ones. When he did, it dawned on Brian and his father.
They were getting 97 percent obliteration. In 24 hours.
On all cancers.
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The real research had just begun. By the time Vesely was ready to test the hormones on mice, he'd gotten funding from the VA. He had also received seed money from Darren Manelski, founder of E Commerce in New York. Manelski's father died of pancreatic cancer.
Vesely was then able to afford to hire two scientists to help with his hormone research: Drs. Ying Sun, from China, and Johanna Eichelbaum, from Venezuela.
One breakthrough after another followed: Hormones killed up to 80 percent of human pancreatic cancer cells implanted in mice. Remaining tumors never got any bigger. Father and son watched the mice go about their lives in their lab cages for a year and a half. "Their faces wrinkled and they died of old age. None died of cancer."
It broadened the implications of the research - especially for diseases like pancreatic cancer, which comes with a survival rate of about four months after diagnosis. "This is a new concept in cancer treatment," Vesely said. "Even if you don't cure every cancer, the rest can be treated like a 'chronic disease,' which one lives with but doesn't die from."
Vesely published his findings in peer-reviewed journals under esoteric titles such as "Elimination of Up to 80% of Human Pancreatic Adenocarcinomas in Athymic Mice by Cardiac Hormones."
He started getting calls from families all around the world. He doesn't have the answer they desperately want to hear.
"I tell them, 'We haven't done humans yet.' "
As Johanna Eichelbaum, his co-researcher, puts it, "Every good result is one more step. We don't see a cure yet. We just see more hope."
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Vesely appears as not one, but two people - two identities, two roles, two lives.
One is the aggressive scientist in lab coat who is a doctor of philosophy, a professor of internal medicine. The other one is the soft-spoken, self-deprecating guy who once planned on playing shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. (At 18, he was hitting .400 and was offered a big-league contract by the Cardinals, but his parents insisted he go to dental school. Dad was a dentist. Vesely dutifully went for three years, then switched to medical school.)
Vesely lives with his sons Brian and Jonathan. Three more children - Susanna, Catherine and Matthew - are grown and live elsewhere, but Brian and Jon are students, living at home.
Their home in Tampa Palms is immaculate but spare, emphatically bacheloresque. Guys live here, oblivious to feminine touches: vases of flowers, warm aromas of pasta wafting from the oven. A lot of the time, dad is the only one wearing shoes.
It's pretty much every man for himself. They have a meal together at night, but each keeps his own crammed schedule. When he isn't at the lab, Vesely teaches at USF and sees patients at the VA. The boys study late into the night. There isn't a lot of chit-chat. Dad does laundry and the lawn.
Vesely, then, was unfazed by the underwhelming crowd reaction to his introduction at the USF game. After all, he doesn't even get to keep the car during the day.
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At VA and USF, Vesely's accomplishments are equated to picking a winning lottery number - twice. First he found new pathways for treatment of heart and kidney disease, then he found pathways for treatment of cancer.
"This was something very novel," said John Dietz, USF professor of physiology and biophysics, who was Vesely's co-researcher on the heart disease studies.
"No one had ever considered this jump in logic, this leap to cancer."
The next step - trials in humans - may come within a year and a half. If Vesely should win the lottery a third time, and the human trials show the hormones are safe and effective, new therapies could be available within five to 10 years.
"I think it will help millions and millions of people," Vesely says, "and my wife's death influenced all the research."
Says Edward Cutolo, chief of staff at Haley VA, "No one had ever thought of how these hormones affect all aspects of the body. No one else may have ever thought of it.
"That's how it sometimes is in science. Some of the best ideas come out of tragedy."