DUNEDIN — Jane Gibson was 37 years old in 1984 when doctors told her she had six months to live.
Mrs. Gibson, then a feisty mother of three, spent nearly 30 years proving that prediction wrong. Her willingness to participate in experimental research allowed scientists to make discoveries that improved cancer treatment.
Mrs. Gibson spent long stretches of years free of her colon cancer. She volunteered for the Junior League, the Dunedin Fine Art Center and her sons' Little League games.
Mrs. Gibson died Nov. 21 under hospice care for her emphysema — though she was free of cancer. She was 65.
One of her physicians, Dr. Michael Lotze of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, credits work done with her for advancing cancer therapies using the body's immune system.
"Jane Gibson is a rock star here in Pittsburgh," said Lotze, a professor of surgery and bioengineering at the university. "She knew something deep about how to combat her own cancer."
Mrs. Gibson underwent at least 13 procedures, one of them involving the use of her own T cells — white blood cells that attack disease-causing agents like viruses or cancer. While the idea was not new, work with Mrs. Gibson convinced Lotze's group that T cells could be used to treat other types of cancer.
Despite flying to Pittsburgh for experimental surgeries and periods of chemotherapy and radiation at home, Mrs. Gibson remained chipper.
"She had a wonderful sense of humor," said Robert Gibson, 64, her husband. "Sarcastic? That's probably putting it nicely."
Jane Query was born in Philadelphia in 1947. She met Robert Gibson at what is now Southern Virginia University. She later worked as a loan officer.
They married in 1976 and lived in Pittsburgh. She gave birth to three sons before a string of life-changing events. Doctors discovered colorectal cancer and performed surgery in 1984. "They weren't even guaranteeing six months at that time," her husband said.
His job transfer took the family to Florida. In 1985, their infant son, Griffin, drowned in the pool.
"Her attitude was, 'I am not going to bother you with my darn problems,' " said Dallas Frey, a longtime friend in Pittsburgh.
She kept going. She underwent experimental cancer treatment at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., where she first met Lotze. By 1988, hundreds of tumors had spread through her abdomen. Doctors took T cells from her tumor tissue, expanded them, combined them with the hormone interleukin-2 and pumped them back into her veins.
"The T cells can recognize the tumor and distinguish it from normal cells," Lotze said. "It either kills the tumor or causes it to kill itself, and they will not usually kill normal cells."
Mrs. Gibson returned to Dunedin. In 1990, she got a call from Lotze, who by that time had moved to the University of Pittsburgh.
Would she return to the lab at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, where his team could take another look at her?
"I took her to the operating room and found only three tumors, instead of the hundreds or thousands that had been there before," Lotze said. Cautiously, they surmised that perhaps the T cells had eradicated the rest.
"That gave us the courage to work in immunotherapy for the next 22 years," Lotze said, "in part because of people like Jane Gibson. It is now an established form of cancer therapy, in part because of her courage."
Lotze removed the three tumors and part of her liver. Apart from two further tumors treated locally by conventional methods, she had been free of cancer ever since.
Mrs. Gibson had been weakening for the past several months due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. "Her will to fight was still there, but her physical ability to fight just wasn't going to happen," her husband said.
But participation in research had extended her life by more than 20 years, and contributed to the treatment of countless others.
"Twenty-four years after Jane's experiment, we now know that T cells are now part of an emerging therapy for patients with melanoma and lymphoma," Lotze said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.