USC Upstate students graduating from the Mary Black School of Nursing Tuesday received a special pin and accolades for leadership, clinical performance and academics.
Graduate Stephanie Lipscomb, with a “60 Minutes” crew in tow, was celebrated for just being there, after having been diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer, first in 2011 and again in 2012, when she was told she had six months to live.
“Stephanie Lipscomb showed great courage by participating in a dramatic clinical trial,” school of nursing dean Katharine Gibb said during the pinning ceremony.
Ninety-three nursing students participated in the graduation held at Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium.
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That dramatic trial almost sounds like science fiction. The experimental treatment involved a cancer researcher at Duke University Medical Center injecting genetically engineered polio directly into Lipscomb's brain tumor. She was the first human to undergo the treatment in a clinical trial, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration just two weeks before her doctors suggested it.
Lipscomb made headlines across the country, and on the pages of “People” after undergoing the groundbreaking treatment. The “60 Minutes” crew was in Spartanburg Tuesday to film Lipscomb's graduation for a piece on the cancer treatment, and have been interviewing her and her mother, Kelli Lusk, over the past five months, University of South Carolina Upstate spokeswoman Tammy Whaley said.
The segment will air sometime in March on CBS.
In 2011, doctors thought at first that Lipscomb had meningitis. But a CT scan revealed a mass in Lipscomb's brain, and she was rushed to Greenville Memorial Hospital, where she was told she had Stage IV glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. She underwent a craniotomy, and surgeons were able to remove 98 percent of the tennis-ball sized tumor.
At the urging of her family, Lipscomb sought treatment at Duke and underwent 10 weeks of radiation treatment, plus oral and intravenous chemotherapy.
In April 2012, a week before final exams, Lipscomb received bad news — the cancer was back.
One option was to start a new chemotherapy. Dr. Annick Desjardins, one of Lipscomb's doctors at Duke, suggested another option. Desjardins' colleague at Duke's Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, Dr. Matthias Gromeier, had spent decades conducting research on the poliovirus and how it might be used to fight cancer.
The treatment was administered while Lipscomb was awake, so doctors could monitor her brain function. A hole was drilled into her skull to insert a catheter through which the poliovirus was infused into her tumor for more than six hours.
The genetically engineered poliovirus being used in the trial is called PVS-RIPO. Gromeier explained in a segment on the brain tumor center's website that genetic engineering has been used to remove the virus' disease-causing ability by splicing it with a piece of genetic code from a common cold-causing rhinovirus.
Once PVS-RIPO is inside a tumor, it infects and kills the tumor cells. According to researchers, PVS-RIPO also triggers the body's immune system, as the immune system recognizes viral infections. The immune system then attacks the infected tumor.
“Looking back, I'm very amazed,” Lipscomb said of the treatment, all smiles as she greeted friends and family after the pinning ceremony.
Lipscomb continued classes while undergoing some of her cancer treatments. She received the Denise Tone Memorial Scholarship this year, which was established by the friends and family of Denise Tone. The scholarship is awarded with special preference given to students who have health problems. It was established in memory of Denise Tome, 24, who was a freshman nursing student at USC Upstate in 1989 when she died of a cerebral hemorrhage, a complication of juvenile diabetes.
Next for Lipscomb is passing the NCLEX, the test to obtain her nursing license. After that, she hopes to work at Greenville Health System, in pediatric oncology, to help children with cancer.
“I love people,” Lipscomb said. “I love taking care of people.”
For Lipcomb's mother, Kelli Lusk, Tuesday was “absolutely wonderful, a long time coming,” she said.
“She grew up wanting to go into pediatrics,” Lusk said. “And now that it (cancer) touched her life, I think pediatric oncology just suits her.”