WSU News

WSU researcher mushes to find cancer cure

PULLMAN, Wash. – Peppermint, Pinecone and Holly have joined the fight against breast cancer. As have Citrus, Bamboo and 13 others who howl, bark and wag their tails.
 
The Siberian huskies are the beloved pets of Washington State University professor Margaret Black, who has spent the past decade studying cancer cells in the hope that her work will lead to less toxic treatments of the cancer that killed her grandmother and harmed two of her close friends.
 
In March, the molecular biologist and eight of her blue-eyed huskies will launch into the great, wide open of Grand Marais, Minn., to participate in the Mush for a Cure fundraiser. A “serious recreational musher,” Black will fight against breast cancer while mounted on sled runners coursing through 24 miles of snow.
 
“Having people I care about get breast cancer has motivated me to work harder in my professional life as a researcher. Now I’m taking a personal stance as well,” said Black.
Lab to licks
 
A scientist and professor at WSU since 1998, Black works to develop a “targeted therapy” to treat breast cancer, where biomarkers can distinguish cancerous cells from noncancerous, making it possible to kill the bad guys while sparing the good.
 
But in Black’s personal quest, she’ll forgo modern-day research for an ancient form of wilderness travel. The use of sled dogs to haul people and freight on snow-covered landmasses stretches back centuries. Nowadays, the animals also have a paw in fundraising.
Held annually since 2007, the annual Mush for a Cure is a donation-based dogsled run that Black will do for the first time. The money she and others raise will be donated to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
 
“Dog mushers make up a tight-knit community and I heard about the Mush for a Cure from others who’ve done it,” Black said. “Not only does the event support a good cause, but it offers people a bright spot in the dead of winter.”
 
So bright that some participants – skijors as well as mushers – sport vibrant pink wigs and butterfly wings, and their dogs don pink tutus, as seen in photographs posted on the Mush for a Cure website, http://www.mushforacure.com/. The event has raised more than $100,000 for breast cancer research, attracting professionals and amateurs alike, according to the site.
 
Black lives on the outskirts of Pullman, where she cares for and trains her 18 huskies during evenings after work and weekends.
 
“I train them in shifts,” said Black, “and I love every minute of it.”
 
No snow on the Palouse? No problem. Training sled dogs on dirt is nothing new. Black drives to Laird Park near Potlatch, Idaho, where she commands her canines from atop an all-terrain vehicle, she said. For snow, she sometimes heads for higher elevations in the Cascade Mountains.
 
Botany of desire
 
Bamboo, Holly, Peppermint. Black gives her dogs botanical names in honor of her late husband, Carl Bowman, a horticulturalist who died of cancer in the Seattle area in 1996.
 
“Ironically, my love affair with Siberian huskies began when I met him. He had a gorgeous male Siberian named Olaf,” recalled Black.
 
Later, when she was a graduate student in Oregon, the couple got a second husky to keep Olaf company.
 
“The two dogs became wonderful companions to us and we wanted to find a way to exercise them,” she said. “The relationship that formed while putting them in harnesses and seeing how much they loved to run really opened my eyes to how strong the human-animal bond can be.”
 
And when Black leads her team down a trail, it’s similar to when she launches into different phases of her research: A burst of acceleration, and then, forward movement that’s quiet, steady and rhythmic.
 
To help Black raise money for breast cancer research, go to Black’s Web page, Snowdance Siberians Race for a Cure, at  http://www.active.com/donate/2013MushforaCure/SnowdanceSiberians4a.