WASHINGTON (ABC7) — Theresa Beech of Rockville, Maryland knows her strengths and weaknesses. She considers herself a great mother and an accomplished space engineer. Cell biology, though, is not her area of expertise.
When her family faced a medical crisis a couple years ago, Theresa wondered if what she does so well during her day job could help her son and other children facing a grim diagnosis.
“I’m not the frilly mom, what many people think of as a mom but I love my kids and what could I do? Dan was dying and I couldn’t change that. All I could do was use what I knew how to do to try to gain him some time,” says Beech.
When Daniel was 11 years old osteosarcoma, a bone cancer among the toughest to treat, invaded his leg.
Beech says, “If you don’t do chemotherapy pretty much all the kids die. With chemo you get some kids who make it.”
It’s survivable if caught early and more importantly if the patient can outlast round after round of barbaric chemotherapy treatments.
“He was getting mustard gas the same time there was all that stuff going on in Syria with mustard gas and they were talking about how mustard gas kills people. And I was like yeah I know all about that. I see the 2nd degree burns. I see the coma. I see the neurotoxicity and the seizures,” says Beech.
Daniel turned 12 during chemotherapy treatments. He held on only to find out that to live the right leg had to be partially amputated.
Dr. Felasfa Wodajo, an orthopedic oncologist with Virginia Cancer Specialists, grew close with the Beech family while performing multiple surgeries on Daniel.
“From the beginning to the end it was a very close relationship. Somebody I will really never forget,” says Dr. Wodajo.
Dr. Wodajo says the tragedy facing osteosarcoma patients is that treatment protocols and survival rates have not improved in 30 years. Clinical trials are failing. About half of these young patients relapse and most who relapse don’t live long.
Beech says, “Why is there nothing? Because there is no treatment for relapsed osteosarcoma. There’s nothing.”
The reality is that this rare and ferocious cancer is tougher and smarter then science.
Dr. Wodajo says, “It’s terrible. You know you are failing them. You know you can’t do anything. They know you are trying your best. There are just no good happy endings.”
There were snapshots in time that gave rise to hope for the Beech family. Daniel’s mother was so moved by her son’s refusal to give up during treatment and physical therapy sessions that she responded in kind.
“What did I have to lose at this point? My kid is dying,” says Beech.
This mother had her son’s tumor genetically tested. She taught herself enough about cell biology to identify drugs not used for his kind of cancer that extended his life.
But while digging into the science of this dreaded disease Beech uncovered a sobering truth.
Beech says, “Given Dan’s response to chemotherapy I knew he was likely to die and when he relapsed I knew that was almost certain to die.”
On August 28th, 2016, several months after his terminal diagnosis, Daniel Garcia-Beech lost his valiant battle at the age of 13.
Beech says, “He suffered horribly and he always used to tell me look for the light mama. He said mom you got to keep doing this because you are a part of the light.”
As it turned out Theresa Beech was the light.
In the final weeks of Daniel’s life Theresa had the tenacity to ask for, and the good fortune to receive, the genetic data of nearly 100 osteosarcoma tumors from two sources: parents of patients and a foundation that tests for genomic abnormalities.
Beech studied, culled and ran statistical analysis on the data she received.
“I would work on this whenever Dan was sleeping,” says Beech.
In only a matter of months this heartbroken, furious and driven mother with no formal medical training independently corroborated what only a handful of experts have discovered. Through statistical analysis she uncovered patterns in the tumors of patients with poor outcomes.
Her research suggests a strong link between genetic mutations and a patient’s prognosis which could one day, with the right funding and research, lead to a breakthrough in certain cancer treatments.
Dr. Wodajo believes Theresa Beech could be a catalyst for change in this area of research.
“What she has done that I think is unique and may not happen again any time in the near future is she was able to fuse the passion of a patient advocate, of a parent, of a grieving mother, with real science,” says Wodajo.
ABC7 News reached out to a number of leaders in this field of study. They point out that a small number of researchers have come to strikingly similar conclusions as Beech. So while she’s not the first person to uncover these findings the fact that she independently validated hard science is considered nothing short of astonishing.
“In the place where her son was dying she turned that anger, she turned that frustration into incredible energy. And we hope for some real scientific breakthroughs but she has at least shown that things are possible. That you don’t have to have an MD or PhD in front of your name to do something amazing,” says Dr. Wodajo.
Here are some of Dr. Wodajo’s insightful notes on why Theresa Beech’s discovery is so remarkable and about osteosarcoma:
So what does Theresa Beech do for a living that’s propelled her to this unlikely moment?
Beech says, “I can’t tell you about biology. I’m not a biologist. But if you give me data and give me this sort of stuff I can get you patterns, I can get you statistics. I can also try to figure out the big picture. This is what I do. I do the design of space missions.”
That’s right. Daniel’s mom is a space engineer who just happens to be really good at solving complex problems. She’s an expert in designing satellite ground systems with past customers including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense.
The remarkable coincidence is that understanding choke points and pathways are fundamental to her job: two disciplines critical in studying how cancer morphs, moves and multiplies.
Her job led to her to another “aha moment” that researchers want to explore.
Beech says a communications network looks and performs a lot like a cancer cell. Target the choke point in a network and you knock it off-line. Maybe that theory could apply to killing cancer cells.
Beech says, “They channel a huge amount of traffic through them and if you attack that choke point you can bring the network down.”
News of her findings helped launch the first ever osteosarcoma conference held in Miami in February.
Beech spoke at the conference and connected with renowned researchers who now want to collaborate with her. One of those researchers is Dr. Rosie Kaplan, a pediatric oncologist and scientist at the National Cancer Institute within the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
Dr. Kaplan says, “To take that information and try to help another patient I think is really transformative that she does this and I think that’s pretty startling.”
Dr. Kaplan is taking Beech’s data and ideas and formulating clinical trials with the hope of one day creating tailored therapies that will improve and maybe save lives. Her hope is that drug company leaders will be so inspired by Beech’s findings that they will fund additional research projects that could lead to breakthrough treatments.
“And if that were to happen that is the Holy Grail. That is why I do what I do all day, every day, because if we can make a difference for the patients who have the worst prognosis, the worst outcome, that can make you feel good and I know it’s going to make Theresa feel good because it will be for Daniel,” says Dr. Kaplan.
When Daniel was in his darkest hours of treatment his mother brought him complex Star Wars Lego puzzles to build. Those sets remain on display at the Beech home as a testament to a child who never gave up.
Beech says, “Every time he would go into the hospital we’d get one of those big star wars Lego boxes and he and I would do the Star Wars Legos together and these are all the ones that we did through his two years of treatment.”
In a way, this mother and son have not stopped collaborating. Theresa Beech will tell you everything she has achieved in these inspiring and heartbreaking months and anything she uncovers in the years ahead will be because of Daniel.
And that maybe, in time, the pieces of the complex and maddening puzzle that is cancer will fall into place so children won’t have to face an unforgiving future.
“If the ideas and the thoughts that I’m provoking end up in a clinical trial and they end up helping some other kids, it won’t bring Daniel back, because he’s dead but it has meaning. It will have meaning to that family. And maybe somebody else’s kid will make it.”