As far back as Ancient Egypt, cancer has frustrated medical practice. Papyri written around 1600 BC describe various cases, with one concluding that “there is no treatment.”
But there’s hope for patients diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)—a cancer that attacks the blood and bone marrow—thanks to Jacqueline Barrientos, MD, who isn’t intimidated by the history surrounding the disease.
She’s too busy helping to rewrite it.
Barrientos is part of a team researching new CLL therapies at the North Shore-LIJ Cancer InstituteLIJ Cancer Institute’s CLL Research and Treatment Center on Long Island. In clinical trials, the pioneering drug treatments produced unprecedented results—considerably better than those achieved with chemotherapy, and minus the brutal side effects.
“We’ve never seen response rates like this before,” says Barrientos. “It’s astonishing.” When the FDA approved the use of the new treatments last year, she and her team were elated. “We’re giving life to patients who once had no hope of surviving because the cancer was so aggressive.”
For Barrientos, the CLL therapy is the zenith of a long journey. “I always wanted to treat cancer,” she says.
Her passion for the work is personal: when she was 6 years old, her mother was diagnosed with refractory lymphoma, a form of cancer that is resistant to treatment.
“We didn’t have good cancer doctors in Peru,” explains Barrientos, who was born in that country’s Chincha Province. Her father, a general practitioner and surgeon, took her mother to Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center seeking more advanced therapies, which also were unsuccessful. “She didn’t respond, ever. She suffered a lot.”
Although she couldn’t know it at the time, her mother’s illness set Barrientos on the path she travels today. “I felt we needed to find better ways to treat the disease. We treat infections with antibiotics…why couldn’t we do the same with cancer?”
As an undergraduate in Puerto Rico, she traveled to the University of Virginia (UVA) to participate in what would eventually become the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Minority Medical Education Program (MMEP), and later the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP).
At UVA, she was introduced to like-minded people, including doctors who had once participated in the program.
“They talked about their experiences and how they made it, and I thought, ‘I hope that will be me one day,’” she says.
SMDEP has empowered students like Barrientos—from underrepresented populations, with few resources or little community support—to realize their dreams in health and health care. It focuses on students in the first two years of their college education, when they derive the most benefit. The free, six-week academic enrichment program has created a pathway for more than 22,000 participants, opening the doors to life-changing opportunities.
“Life-changing” is what Barrientos and her work have been to the patients she treats. To those patients, she and her colleagues are saviors.
“You have given us hope where there wasn’t any,” wrote one. “I thank you, my children thank you, and my eight grandchildren thank you.”
SMDEP is currently accepting applications for its 2015 cohort; the application period closes March 1. To learn more about the program or to apply, visit http://smdep.org/apply-to-smdep/