Getting to the Heart of Science with Michelle Newby
At the heart of science are stories—stories of courage, challenges, successes, lessons, and people. These stories motivate us in the pursuit of knowledge and breathe life into the work we do as researchers. They remind us of the immense benefits of drug development.
For Michelle Newby, Study Coordinator II for preclinical services at Altasciences, research strikes a personal chord: In 2017, at the age of 25, Michelle was diagnosed with cancer. She participated in a clinical trial involving chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant from a surprising donor that saved her life.
We sat down with Michelle to discuss how her experience with clinical trials inspired a fresh perspective on life and her career.
Q: What was your cancer diagnosis and was treatment options were you given?
A: In December of 2017, I was diagnosed with two different types of stage III leukemia. I was offered two treatment options: The first was a standard chemo treatment called Hyper-CVAD and the other was a clinical trial that my doctor highly recommended because I had a gene mutation.
Q: What treatment did you choose?
A: I went with the clinical trial. The treatment involved four rounds of chemo and a stem cell transplant from a donor, my brother. And after the first round of chemo, I was almost completely disease-free. Because the clinical trial worked so well for me, I needed three rounds of chemo and the protocol was updated. It really did a good job!
Q: How would you describe your experience and what do you hope for the future?
A: I am so grateful that the clinical trial worked so well for me. But going through the chemo and the radiation was rough. These things poison your body! They also create a high likelihood of secondary malignancy—a cancer caused by cancer treatment. For the future, I hope for more clinical trials, because if we can find better alternatives to chemo and radiation for fighting cancer, then we won’t have people who have multiple kinds of cancer throughout their lifetime.
Q: Have you always worked in the drug development industry?
A: No. Before I joined this industry, I was working at a zoo, in admissions. Since the clinical trial, I’ve been really excited about the kind of opportunity I have here [in drug development]. I am alive because of a clinical trial, and if I can help facilitate more of them, and if I can help make the experience less extreme, that’s a big deal for me. My sister-in-law has worked in this industry for many years, and she inspired me to join. When the study coordinator position [at Altasciences] opened up, she told me it would be really fitting. And I’ve been here ever since, helping study directors get the finalized product back to sponsors.
Q: Have your experiences made you even more invested in your job?
A: Absolutely. I recently was helping out with a study that treats radiation burns in cancer patients, and that’s really exciting to see, because I know how much of a need there is for it. I’ve met so many other cancer survivors, so many people going through different treatments, and being at that end myself and knowing I couldn’t have survived without my treatment—being able to help push studies that take cancer treatment even further is really exciting.
Q: In your opinion, what needs to change regarding the process and conversation around clinical trials?
A: I wouldn’t be here without clinical trials. All the medications you’ve ever taken in your life are because of clinical trials. It’s because of what we’ve done in science. And getting this knowledge out to people who don’t understand is important. Cancer and cancer treatment are personal things and can happen to anyone. My mom was going through radiation therapy and was dealing with burns, so that further personalized the study that I mentioned. If we personalize what we’re doing in this industry, and have conversations about health, we will reach a lot more people and will better convey why the research we’re doing is important.
Q: Who is your hero?
A: My hero is a woman named Pearl. I met her when I was in the hospital for my transplant. She knocked on my door on Easter and she had bunny ears on and a basket of eggs filled with candies, giving them out to transplant patients. She was diagnosed with several kinds of cancer and had to go through transplants three different times, so she wanted to bring a little bit of joy to everyone on a floor she knew well. From that, we became friends and I got to know her more. She used to work at Seaworld; she recently was able to go back to her dream job of working on the fishing boats in Alaska. She’s still out there living life and doing everything. She is definitely my hero, and she helped me understand what processes I would go through, even in recovery.
Q: What do you want readers to take away from this conversation?
A: Live life each day to the fullest. If you save things for later, the situation might be different. Always continue to learn as much as you can. If you want to try something, don’t wait. When I was just 25, I had a life-changing cancer diagnosis. You never know what’s going to happen. Be a good person, and don’t wait to have fun. And don’t wait to go to the doctor. Go in sooner and ask more questions, no matter your issue.
ABOUT THE SERIES: “GETTING TO THE HEART OF SCIENCE”
Our mission here at Altasciences is to get better drugs to the people who need them, faster. “Getting to the Heart of Science” is a series that explores the minds and hearts of some of the Altasciences team, and their personal “why?” behind our mission.
Learn more about Michelle’s story from this video interview.
If you’re interested in more from this series, watch our interview with Amber Malloy, Analytical Associate III at our CDMO facility in Philadelphia.