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The Next Giant Leap—A Cure for Cancer?

IN THE SUMMER OF 2021, Michael and Isabel Durkin took notice when their son Samuel, a sophomore at Purdue, came down the stairs of their Illinois home with a hollow look in his eyes. He said he just found out that a fellow student he had befriended during Boiler Gold Rush had passed. After spending the fall of 2020 bonding on campus, Sam told them his friend had suddenly left school that same November.

Isabel went looking for answers. She learned that Sam’s friend had glioblastoma, causing a rapid decline in health. What she was surprised to uncover, however, was that Purdue is at the forefront of this aggressive cancer research. After speaking to Dean Eric Barker in the College of Pharmacy, Michael and Isabel were impressed to learn about Dr. Sandro Matosevic’s work with natural killer cells. An assistant professor in the Department of Industrial & Physical Pharmacy, Dr. Matosevic is also a researcher for the Purdue Institute for Cancer Research (formerly Purdue Center for Cancer Research). Impressed with what they heard, the Durkins committed to support these genetically modified cell therapy initiatives. “We saw this as an opportunity to facilitate and further research in memory of our son’s friend,” says Isabel. In fact, near the end of the discussion, Michael was so inspired to support the cause that he leaned over to his wife and whispered in her ear, “Let’s double it.”

Isabel, a former ICU nurse, and Michael, a surgeon, are no strangers to serving others. They have instilled these principles of service into their three sons, Joseph, Samuel, and Matthew. Joe and Sam are both Eagle Scouts, Culver Military Academy graduates, and Purdue students. Joe is majoring in history and political science with plans to study pre-law while Sam is a biology major looking to pursue a medical degree. Matthew (11) has some time to decide where he will garner his secondary education, but he looks up to his brothers and enjoys all things old gold and black so far.   

“While losing a friend has been a sobering experience for Sam, it has given him a new sense of purpose,” Michael says of his middle son. Dean Barker and Dr. Matosevic have been instrumental in helping to create an outlet for Sam to process his grief in a proactive, positive manner and even offered Sam an opportunity to work in the very lab that is helping to eradicate this devastating form of cancer. “From this tragedy, Purdue is encouraging productivity and support for Sam—maximizing who he is as a student and a future professional,” Isabel says. “And now, on his own accord, he can be found at the lab at 7 a.m. on a Saturday doing what he can to help eradicate this disease.”

Although the Durkins have not had the chance to meet the family of Sam’s friend, they send their love and support and hope they know that his memory will not be forgotten. They are confident that Sam now has an eagle watching over him, guiding him from above. //

Writer: Andrea Marfell, Donor Relations Communications akmarfell@purdueforlife.org

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