Six year-old Jennifer Lynn Kranz died a little over a year ago, but she is still fighting for a cure to the disease that took her life.
Jennifer died in February 2014, four months after being diagnosed with Diffused Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a incurable, and always fatal, brain tumor. Jennifer's parents, Libby and Tony Kranz, decided at the time they would donate the tumor to researchers after their daughter's death.
Their hope was that progress could be made in the fight against a disease that had not seen any meaningful advancements in decades.
It is a move that appears to already be yielding results.
“There’s a promising therapy,” says Dr. Michelle Monje, an assistant professor of Neurology at Stanford Medicine. She and her team were the ones who harvested Jennifer's tumor, and then successfully created a line of DIPG stem cells from it so that the disease could be studied in the lab.
DIPG cells had proven notoriously hard to culture in the past, and Jennifer's stem cell line is now one of only 16 in existence in the world. Using Jennifer's stem cell lines and others, Monje and her team tested dozens of existing chemotherapy drugs to see if any were effective against DIPG. One appears to be working.
The drug was able to slow the growth of a DIPG tumor in a laboratory setting. Monje's hope is that this treatment one day could extend the life of children diagnosed with DIPG in a matter of months.
That would have more than doubled Jennifer's life expectancy.
“It’s a step in the right direction if we can effectively prolong life and prolong quality of life,” Monje said.
Libby Kranz says that for their family, donating their daughter’s tumor to researchers “just felt right.” She and Tony hope that by aiding the research efforts, parents and families will have more, and better quality time with their sick children.
"It's incredible and it's humbling," she said, "to know my daughter is part of it, and that we're part of it too."
As it is already FDA-approved for treatment of a different disease, the next step is to test the promising drug in clinical trials. Monje remains hopeful based on the findings of the laboratory studies.
Donating Jennifer’s tumor is not the only way in which the Kranzes are helping to promote cancer research. After her death they started a non profit, Unravel, that raises money for pediatric cancer research. A very successful fundraising campaign in September of 2014, called "fluttering", raised more than $100,000 in 2014. A portion of that money was dedicated to funding Dr. Monje's research.
“Jennifer is still fighting. Jennifer will be around for finding the cure, she will be part of it,” Libby says.