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Newswise — Cancer survivor and Harvard-trained scientist, Bernadette Zwaans, Ph.D., recently became the first Beaumont researcher to receive a prestigious, KO1 career development grant from the National Institutes of Health. The award supports her work on radiation cystitis, a side effect of cancer treatment.

“Once you receive cancer treatment, I know from my personal experience, your body is changed forever,” Dr. Zwaans said. “Survivor quality of life is a big issue for me.”

Dr. Zwaans’ research project looks at how radiation can damage the bladder, potentially leading to cystitis, a potentially excruciating condition with no current treatment.

“The goal of this project is to better understand how radiation cystitis develops, ultimately leading to new treatments and new diagnostic tests for early screening,” Dr. Zwaans said.

The five-year, $600,000 grant, which covers salary, research supplies and some travel training costs, recognizes the significance of Dr. Zwaans’ work and opens the door to similar, future opportunities for other scientists within the health system.

“As a cancer survivor herself, Bernadette has a unique perspective on the needs of these patients, a group which continues to grow as new and improved treatments extend the lives of those who battle this disease,” said Laura Lamb, Ph.D., a research scientist with Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak’s Department of Urology.

In addition to the bladder, Dr. Zwaans’ research has implications for other parts of the body damaged by radiation treatment, including the heart and lungs, Dr. Lamb said.

Richard Kennedy, Ph.D., vice president of the Beaumont Health Research Institute, said the award is not only a reflection of Dr. Zwaans’ work, but also recognizes the work and reputation of her mentors, Dr. Lamb and Michael Chancellor, M.D., director of the Beaumont Urology Research Program.

“Beaumont’s reputation as a pioneer of new health care solutions, with access to the latest research and technology continues to grow,” Dr. Kennedy said.  “Our physicians and researchers, like Dr. Zwaans, are among the leaders in the state and country.”  

Kenneth Peters, M.D., Chief of Urology for Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, said: "We are very proud of Dr. Zwaans for receiving this prestigious KO1 award from the NIH to support her career development. Dr. Zwaans trained at Harvard and received her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan.  

“Her research at Beaumont focuses on the devastating condition of radiation cystitis which can impact patients exposed to pelvic radiation for cancer treatment,” Dr. Peters said. “There is a desperate need for research in this area to develop ways to prevent and treat this disease."

In March 2015, just two months after beginning her research work at Beaumont, Dr. Zwaans, the then mother of a nine-month-old son, learned the consistent, dry cough and shortness of breath she experienced was caused by an aggressive lymphoma, or cancer of the white blood cells.

“As a scientist, I was aware of the damage the harsh cancer treatments that saved my life could do to my body,” Dr. Zwaans said. “But the most devastating moment for me was when I was told surgery was not an option and I would have to undergo chemo- and radiation therapy. How could I take care of a nine-month-old baby, continue my scientific research and fight this cancer?”

Despite her doubts, Dr. Zwaans’ colleagues recognized the strength in her response.

“She was amazing,” Dr. Lamb recalled. “She continued her research with us while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, all while taking care of her young son. Any parent can recognize the dedication that would entail.”

Dr. Zwaans has been in remission since late 2015.

She was inspired to pursue her doctorate degree in cancer biology with a focus on survivorship issues, after her father was diagnosed and successfully treated for colon cancer in 2006.

Though neither she nor her father developed cystitis as a result of their treatments, these experiences continue to shape her life path.