Battling cancer on the front lines

Reports of measles cases reached a 20-year high in the United States in May. For many, the virus is considered a highly contagious, but preventable, respiratory disease sometimes causing death.

Jamie Bakkum-Gamez ’98 sees it—and other viruses like it—as a possible cure.

As a gynecologic oncology fellow at Mayo Clinic, Bakkum-Gamez, a Wartburg biology major, helped re-engineer the measles virus to fight ovarian cancer. The virus didn’t kill the cancer, but the work started Bakkum-Gamez—now a Mayo gynecologic oncology surgeon—on a research path she continues to walk today.

Viral therapy, a form of treatment converting viruses to treat diseases, has been researched since at least 1912. In May, viral therapy research at Mayo made national headlines when a patient battling myeloma, a blood cancer that affects the bone marrow, went into remission after being injected with a re-engineered measles virus.

Jamie Bakkum-Gamez

This story was originally published in the Summer 2014 edition of the Wartburg Magazine. 

“It does seem counterintuitive, but there are different receptors on cancer cells than on normal cells,” Bakkum-Gamez explained. “These receptors act like keyholes. The virus has the key, gets in there, and starts turning on things and making the cell become toxic to itself.”

Today the Westby, Wisconsin, native puts her energy into designing clinical trials to develop screening tools that detect endometrial cancer and viral therapy to fight it.

“With endometrial cancer, if it comes back, it is essentially a death sentence, and we don’t have a standard of care for it,” she said. “We have recognized a need here. We’ve done the basic science aspect of it … and it is very promising when it comes to future research in this area.”

Wartburg’s strong biology program coupled with multiple opportunities for hands-on experience—she was an obstetrics aide at Waverly Health Center and conducted research with Dr. Roy Ventullo, professor of biology—prepared her for medical school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Hours in music rehearsals prepared her for the operating room. She is certain years of oboe playing gave her the hand-eye coordination and steady hands needed to perform delicate surgeries on women fighting for their lives.

“Women in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, even 90s, they are tough people. They are resilient people,” she said. “I take care of women with cancer every day. Whatever I ask them to do, they will do it.”

And Bakkum-Gamez will do whatever it takes to help them, all while steeling herself for the reality that some will succumb to the disease.

“One of my patients I met as a resident died in February after nine years of fighting ovarian cancer,” she said. “I went to her funeral and bawled my eyes out.

“Every patient is an individual person. I don’t know how it is when I go into the operating room I am able to do the things that I do to them. I think it has to do with the fact that I am removing the stuff that is making them ill.”

When she’s not treating patients or searching for a cure to endometrial cancer, Bakkum-Gamez can usually be found mentoring up-and-coming doctors—another skill she learned watching Wartburg professors like Dr. Darold Wolff, emeritus biology professor. Her Mayo work includes Master’s faculty privileges at Mayo Graduate School in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.

“I was worried I would have a hard time making the transition from learner to teacher, but I found watching those I am teaching, watching the light bulb come on, watching them become good surgeons, that was actually more rewarding,” she said. “Now I understand why Dr. Wolff loved what he did. It’s super rewarding when your efforts are translated into somebody else realizing their dreams and abilities.”

Bakkum-Gamez is married to Jeffrey Gamez ’96, a Mayo senior research technologist.