Bridging the Gap in Chordoma Research

An alum’s personal encounter with a rare brain cancer spurs investment in groundbreaking research

Story by Kelly Collins | Photo by Jeyhoun Allebaugh | Published September 10, 2022

Watson and Blackwell

The observant gaze of his wife of 40 years led to an early chordoma diagnosis for John Watson ’77. John was brushing his teeth in the morning when his wife, Betsy Blackwell ’77, told him that his left eye was not tracking properly with his right eye. A visit with the ophthalmologist led to more doctors’ appointments for a final diagnosis. Finally, an MRI showed a tumor at the base of John’s brain that doctors identified as chordoma. “It came as quite a shock because I’d had no headaches, no fatigue, no symptom of any kind that was perceptible to me,” John said.

Consulting with experts, John and Betsy, who live in Chapel Hill, quickly decided that he would undergo surgery in November 2020 at UNC Hospitals to remove the tumor. Following the successful surgery, doctors recommended proton beam radiation therapy to reduce chances of recurrence. With no local centers offering that treatment, John and Betsy moved temporarily to Washington, DC, for the five-day-a-week sessions at a hospital there.

John emerged cancer-free, but he was struck by the difficulty of the entire treatment regimen, from the grueling surgery and recovery to the demands of undergoing radiation therapy so far from home. He and Betsy met with Josh Sommer, executive director of the Chordoma Foundation and also a chordoma survivor, for guidance on how they could support research into new drug therapies that would offer more options for chordoma patients.

“We got to the other side of surgery and radiation treatment and said, ‘We would really like to do something to push research in a direction that would be less intrusive,” John shared. “Josh said, ‘Funny you should say that because there is extraordinarily promising research going on at UNC.’ We are both graduates and committed to the University, and to learn about what’s happening right here was just astonishing.”

Davide Drewry, PhD

David Drewry, PhD, seeks novel treatments for chordoma

At the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, David Drewry, PhD, is uncovering new possibilities for treating chordoma. He is developing compounds that target a gene called brachyury that shuts off for most people but remains active in chordoma patients. The Chordoma Foundation has awarded more than $1.5 million in grants to Dr. Drewry. “It is truly justified hope that we can solve this problem now,” Josh said. “It’s a feeling that we are on the cusp of important discoveries. That’s why it’s important to support David’s work.”

John and Betsy committed to matching dollar-for-dollar up to $50,000 all gifts in support of Dr. Drewry’s chordoma research. “We hope to provide the bridge to get from where they are now to where they need to be in order to attract very significant funding institutions,” John said. In less than a month, 87 donors from around the world contributed a total of $104,456 to the effort.

See more of John and Betsy’s journey: