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A Champion for Cancer Research

A cancer survivor now advocates for the scientific work that saved his life
Four people stand together in front of a library wall

Darren McLaughlin initially attributed his back pain to the strain of lifting and moving heavy objects. However, a few months later, the pain was so severe, he was taken to the emergency room. After multiple tests, Darren received a diagnosis of stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

Despite multiple rounds of chemotherapy, his aggressive cancer continued to grow. His oncologist referred him to Joseph McGuirk, DO, at The University of Kansas Cancer Center. Dr. McGuirk leads the region’s most comprehensive hematologic malignancies and cellular therapeutics program. Out of options, Darren was treated with a leading-edge form of immunotherapy, called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy. CAR T-cell therapy involves genetically modifying a patient's own T-cells to attack their cancer.

“I knew I was going to be okay,” Darren says. “If there was anyone who could help me, it was going to be Dr. McGuirk.”

Today, Darren is in complete remission and serves as chief of police for the city of Merriam, Kan. Below, Darren shares what motivates him to advocate for more cancer research.

Q: Last summer, you attended a Hill Day, hosted by the Association of American Cancer Institutes (AACI) and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). The purpose of AACI/AACR Hill Day is bringing people together to advocate for a strong federal investment in cancer research. How did it go?

It was a lot of fun. As a constituent and a voter, it was fulfilling for me to have the chance to talk to our federal legislators. When you hear about this massive amount of funding supporting research, it can be hard to visualize. It’s not a tangible thing like a bridge. But in this case, I am the tangible. The fact that I was there to talk with them — that I am here today — is the result of years and years of research. Without funding, I would not be here to share my story.

My wife, Mindy, attended Hill Day with me. People often lose sight of how a cancer diagnosis affects the family. Her perspective as a caregiver is important. I often joke that, from this whole experience, my job was perhaps the easiest. Running the household, doctor visits and work, Mindy had to keep it all going.

Q: Did you know that National Cancer Institute (NCI) funding was an issue? 

Before my diagnosis, I never knew NCI funding was an issue. I was like everybody else in the world, with no idea of the funding it takes to lead to new lifesaving treatments. Thank God, I am one of the ones who has benefitted from these lifesaving treatments.

Dr. McGuirk inspired me to learn more about the research that made my CAR T-cell treatment possible. I became more interested in the drug development process, not just the results. Once I learned that funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NCI make these breakthroughs possible, I told him that I would do whatever I can to help advocate. 

Q: What excites you about the future of cancer research?

Advancements in treatments are happening right here in Kansas City. It’s amazing that I was able to survive, and I am so grateful that I didn’t have to worry about traveling for my treatment. 

People are curious about the science, but what they really want to know is how they’ll be treated. The University of Kansas Cancer Center delivers both: science and the personal touch. They’re ahead of their time in terms of how they approach cancer care and research. 

When Dr. McGuirk talks about the future of CAR T-cell treatment, I get excited. With this new cancer research and care facility being planned by the cancer center, CAR T-cells will be manufactured right on site. Patients won’t have to wait for cells to be shipped to another location. It’ll happen right here. 


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