UNI student researches cure for the cancer that claimed sister's life

By the time Nolan Ford was in second grade, he had learned lessons in courage and dedication that would last a lifetime and define a career path. That’s when his sister MacKenzie lost her fight with a rare, deadly form of cancer she had struggled with for most of her life. She was only 9.

That early, devastating loss sunk deep into Ford’s psyche. Helping children like his sister overcome cancer became his life’s mission. At the University of Northern Iowa, where Ford is now a senior biology major on a pre-med track, his passion for research led him to a surprising mentor - one of the cancer researchers who helped treat MacKenzie. 

“At the time I felt helpless,” Ford said of his childhood. “I wanted to be the one to help my sister get through, and I felt there was nothing I could do as a kid. I wanted to do something to give to kids like my sister. There were a lot of kids at the unit that were suffering. That motivated me to pursue medicine to give a high quality of life back to kids like her.”

His professors have taken note, doing all they can to help him on his path. One mentor, Shoshanna Coon, UNI assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, saw his drive to succeed but only later learned why he was so motivated.

“It isn't something he talked to everyone about. He overcame a lot of obstacles to go to college with the goal of becoming a doctor one day,” she said. “I saw that drive manifest itself in his work in my class a couple of years ago, and I don't think it has dimmed one bit since then.”

From an early age, his sister’s battle with cancer was his family’s focus. His parents left their jobs in Rockwell City - a town of less than 2,000 people - to move three hours east to Iowa City, where MacKenzie was receiving treatment at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. 

Ford lived at the hospital and spent the nights he was away at a nearby Ronald McDonald house. He saw everything his sister went through - all the tests and the treatments - and witnessed the tireless work of her medical providers. 

“I was really inspired by the doctors and nurses at the hospital,” Ford said. “If it wasn’t for all their relentless efforts, I would never have been able to make memories with my sister.”

He remembers playing hide and seek with MacKenzie in that hospital and her snarky sense of humor as she interacted with her doctors. He remembers her strength and courage as she fought against the malignant peripheral nerve sheath cancer. Most children with this cancer only survive six months. MacKenzie fought for eight years.

Those experiences stayed with Ford, and now, 12 years later, he’s on a pre-med track at UNI and landed a $5,000 Pediatric Oncology Student Training through the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation to study how human stem cells from umbilical cords are able to resist and recover from different forms of radiation therapy. These experiments will be used to target pediatric malignancies such as myeloid leukemia, neuroblastoma, and medulloblastoma brain tumors. 

Due to COVID-19, Ford’s work with the grant was postponed to the summer of 2021, but his motivation to pursue this research remains undeterred. 

“My heart was really in there to give everything back I could to learn more about this for my sister and other kids like her,” Ford said.

His dedication creates a grueling schedule. In the summer and fall of 2019, he drove back and forth between Cedar Falls and Iowa City every day while volunteering at the UI Hospitals & Clinics lab to study breast cancer and prostate cancer. He also volunteers at the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital in the same pediatric care unit where his sister received treatment. In between, he would visit the library at Carver Medical School and devour books on cancer and physiology.

To fund these frequent trips to Iowa City, Ford works as a home health aide. It’s a routine that leaves little room for leisure. He admits to sometimes getting only two or three hours of sleep a night.

“It was definitely exhausting,” Ford said. “But my drive and motivation to study this profession allowed me to lift some big weights.”

His UNI professors have also been instrumental in helping him shoulder this load, giving a rigorous background to prepare him for the challenges of medical work and research.

“If it wasn’t for the professors at UNI preparing me in the sciences and helping me in the research and applying basic foundations in research, there’s no way I would be able to do this,” Ford said.

His chemistry professor said she noticed his drive to succeed instantly.

“Most students are happy if they can just master the material in my class, but Nolan wanted to make all the connections he could,” Coon said. “He did better and better on each successive exam and got the highest score in the class on the final.”

Beyond his UNI professors, Ford also found mentors at the hospital, including one straight out of his past.

Dr. Sue O’Dorisio, a medical oncologist and pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship director came into MacKenzie’s treatment late in her battle with cancer. She introduced a clinical trial to Ford’s parents and cared for their daughter while she was enrolled in it.

“MacKenzie and her parents were eager to participate in this clinical trial,” O’Dorisio said in an interview with the University of Iowa. “They knew that there was a very small chance that the new drug would cure her cancer, and they also understood that whatever the outcome for MacKenzie’s tumor, they would be helping other children and families benefit from better treatments in the future. At 9 years of age, MacKenzie demonstrated bravery and courage beyond her years; she had an understanding of life that few of us possess, whatever our age.”

The trial ultimately failed, but questions lingered in Ford’s mind. What if the trial could be done successfully? What could that mean for children like MacKenzie?

As Ford pursued those questions, O’Dorisio came back into life more than a decade later. Despite the time that had passed, she remembered treating Ford’s sister, and now she is one of his biggest mentors. It was O’Dorisio who suggested Ford apply for the grant from the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation.

And although their work this summer was delayed, Ford continues to volunteer and work at the UI Hospitals & Clinics. It may seem strange, spending all this time at the site of his sister’s death. And Ford acknowledges that the hospital is a place of grief for his parents. But for him, it represents hope, passion and promise - a place where, through relentless effort and determination, he may find a treatment to save future families from his family’s anguish.

“This is how I want to honor my sister and all those kids in that oncology unit who I saw fighting day in and day out,” Ford said.