1. Archive

Making miracles, but seeking cures

(ran PC edition)

Trumpet Dr. Steven Brem as a miracle worker, and he will be both genuinely flattered and, secretly, a bit frustrated.

You see, five years ago, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist seated alongside a New York Times reporter at a dinner banquet began a conversation about new happenings in the world of science.

"Judah Folkman and angiogenesis, that's what's new," the Nobel-winner said, according to Dr. Folkman's War by author Robert Cooke. "Judah is going to cure cancer in two years."

Folkman was _ and still is _ a professor at Harvard Medical School, where Brem graduated in 1972. A photo of the them together hangs in Brem's office at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and he calls the good doctor a "hero." Two years to cure cancer was, indeed, asking for a miracle.

"He's made a lot of breakthroughs, but that hurt his career, putting his research on that timetable," said Brem, director of the center's neuro-oncology research laboratory.

The same year the media was publishing unreasonable cancer expectations, Brem removed a prune-sized tumor from the back of University of Tampa baseball coach Terry Rupp's head. Those outside of medicine tossed that word "miracle" around.

"They talk about so-called medical miracles a lot," said the university's information director Gil Swalls at the time. "But this really was one."

Because of his position, Brem sees more tumors in a year than the average brain surgeon sees in a lifetime. Not surprisingly then, he has produced a lot of what could be called miracles. Last year he successfully removed a tumor from the neck of a 52-year-old, wheelchair-bound Kosovo refugee. She is now walking again.

Brem, the 55-year-old son of two Holocaust survivors and a resident of Tampa Palms, came seven years ago to Moffitt, where he has sought to eradicate tumors by starving them of blood.

His younger brother is the chairman of neurosurgery at John's Hopkins University; another is a surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York; his sister is an oral surgeon.

Can you guess what his two children hope to be when they grow up?

There are, according to the American Board of Neurological Surgery, just 3,100 certified brain surgeons in the country, putting Brem among select company. Then his name appears on a Top 10 list and his mother blushes.

Patients looking for miracles come to him _ fairly or unfairly _ because they have seen the lists and heard the stories.

When a reporter visited in January, an e-mail from a 50-year-old man with a metastatic tumor lay amid the clutter on Brem's desk, asking, practically begging, for his help.

Mozart and Beethoven play the background music when he's saving someone's life. His hands are steady, he says. Minds are what make great surgeons, though. He describes his place in the operation room like a quarterback's on a football field.

For all his power, Brem will never call himself a miracle worker.

He will, however, believe in science's impressive force.

"Polio's been cured, tuberculosis has been cured, there have been a lot of tremendous breakthroughs in transplantation," he said. "It's a process. I think it takes a little longer than two years."