BYU scientist develops method of predicting cancer recurrence

No matter how rough the times, there is always sunshine at the end of the rainbow.

That saying, a lodestar for BYU microbiologist Kim O'Neill, has helped him through the trials in his life and to continue in his research as he has sought a possible cure for cancer.By measuring the amount of a particular enzyme in original breast tumors, Brother O'Neill - a counselor in the Timpanogos Park 7th Ward bishopric, Orem Utah North Stake - has developed a promising method of predicting the recurrence of breast cancer.

Brother O'Neill, 34, measured thymidine kinase levels in breast cancer patients in a study conducted over the past four years in conjunction with the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, Ireland.

"I really believe the only reason I am where I am today and have accomplished what I have is because of Heavenly Father's love for me," Brother O'Neill explained in a Church News interview.

A native of Ireland, he came to BYU last January as an assistant professor of microbiology and plans to continue his studies through the BYU Cancer Research Center. Brother O'Neill was a research officer and lecturer in genetics at Ireland's University of Ulster before coming to BYU.

His preliminary study was small - 86 patients followed over a 41-month period - but the results were dramatic enough to be published in the Dec. 2 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

"It appears that this particular enzyme is a potentially useful marker in the management of breast cancer," he related. "If you can effectively predict which patients will exhibit tumor recurrence, you can prescribe a more intensive treatment of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. But if recurrence is not so likely, the full breast may not need to be removed and extensive therapy may not be needed."

In the study, Brother O'Neill and his colleagues at the Department of Surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital worked with the 86 patients who were admitted for breast cancer surgery but who had not been previously diagnosed with cancer or treated for cancer. The women ranged in age from 29 to 85 years. Fresh tumor tissue from the patients was then examined for levels of the enzyme.

"Total tumor enzyme levels were significantly higher in tumors of patients who subsequently had disease recurrence than in those who did not," he added.

His research, which has been a culmination of 10 years effort, has been slow at times, but has taught him that any sacrifice is worth it in the end. Lessons from his work have in a way been an outgrowth of early lessons in life, he noted.

Brother O'Neill grew up in Northern Ireland in Portstewart. "We had rival gangs and would fight after school." At age 14 he had a few experiences in a gang that scared him enough to start asking questions about whether or not the Savior existed.

"I read the Bible several times and started focusing on Christ and His life. I noticed what He had done in His life and that impressed me. I went back to my church and talked to the minister. I kept asking questions and he couldn't answer the basic things I wanted to know about like baptism and the sacrament."

From there, Brother O'Neill began searching other religions. His brother was a member of the LDS Church, but he didn't consider learning about the Church until several years later when a co-worker began meeting with the full-time missionaries.

After the co-worker's baptism, Brother O'Neill noticed a big change in her life. "I hoped the missionaries would challenge me to hear the discussions, and they did."

Through the years, he had been compiling notes of 150 different points that he felt the Lord's church should have, such as no infant baptism, weekly sacrament, no paid preachers, apostles and prophets.

"When I met with the missionaries, I went armed with my scriptures and this notebook. As I went down the list, the missionaries said yes to every point. I told them I didn't have to hear anymore. I knew I wanted to be baptized."

But he continued to have a difficult time, receiving no affirmative answer to his prayers until about a week later. When he received his answer, "I knew it was the right thing to do. I had no doubts after that."

He was baptized in July 1982. He married his wife, Allison Nesbitt, in 1989 in the London Temple just after she returned from her mission. They now have two children: Anu, 2; and Shannon, nearly a year.

"Personally, I know if you do the wee things in Church, like pray and read the scriptures every day, that big things follow as a result," he reflected. "The more obedient you are to the Church and its leaders, the more life becomes blessed.

"I have always found that Heavenly Father has watched over and protected me. Once a test is over, blessings follow for obedience. There have been times in my life when I had to grit my teeth and hang on to what is right, but it eventually worked out. As I look back on it, I can see how a trial strengthened me, even though at the time I felt it was breaking me."

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