Cancer and AIDS cause much suffering and death worldwide. But what if one disease could be used to treat the other?
Dr. Harvey Bumpers ’78, director of surgical oncology at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, along with several colleagues, identified a protein produced by the AIDS virus that appears to cause cell death. From this protein they isolated the peptide responsible for cell death and injected it into mice bearing human cancers. “We had up to a 75-percent reduction in [the rate of] tumor growth,” says Bumpers. “And the animals treated with this peptide had significantly less metastasis from colon and breast cancers.”
Though the procedure is still in the testing phase, the team hopes to be able to use it to treat human cancer patients in the near future.
Bumpers, a native of Alabama, knew at an early age that he wanted to be a doctor. “I had an incredible interest in science as a child. I was always trying to figure out how living things worked,” he says. By the time he enrolled at Trinity in 1974, he had decided on a career in surgical oncology.
“At the time, I saw surgery as a very immediate practice. You find the tumor and remove it. Of course, now I know there’s more to it,” says the former biology major.
At Trinity, he dove into science — even serving as a teaching assistant in his comparative anatomy class. Though he was on the track and field team all four years (both indoor and outdoor), Bumpers managed a heavy course load, which gave him free time as an upperclassman. “At one point, I had a whole year mostly free,” he says. He spent a major portion of that year, and his summers, at the University of Connecticut’s pathology lab doing cancer research.
Bumpers graduated from the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine with honors in research — research that began during his undergraduate years. “I received an excellent liberal arts education at Trinity,” he says.
His interest lies in taking cancer study “from the bedside to the lab” and then taking cancer treatment “from the lab back to the bedside.” And as a professor, researcher, and surgeon he enjoys all aspects of his work. “I would not be happy if I had to give anything up,” he says.
Bumpers holds two patents: one for developing a technique to grow human breast cancer tissue inside a mouse and the other for the HIV-1 Nef peptide. In addition to his research on the HIV peptide as a treatment for breast and colorectal cancer, he is researching the genetic markers for colorectal cancer.
Through a NIH consortium grant between Morehouse and the University of Alabama, Bumpers is investigating how African- Americans and Caucasian cancer patients respond to chemotherapy. “Other researchers have looked at this issue from a cultural point of view, but I am studying it at a tissue level.” They have found significant differences in how individuals of different races respond to similar treatments.
Though Bumpers is a man of science, he met his future wife, Shari, through poetry. He was co-editor of Trinity’s African-American poetry magazine, and when Shari (then a student at Hartford College for Women) seemed uninterested in him, he read her his poems for two hours over the telephone. “She talked to me after that,” he says, “and now we have been married for 28 years.”