From Cancer Patient to Researcher by Age 19
Elana Simon was diagnosed with a rare liver cancer when she was 12. Her tumor was removed, leaving her cancer-free, but her interest in the disease remained strong.
While Simon was an intern in a lab at New York’s Mount Sinai medical school as a high school sophomore, she found out that due to the rarity of the cancer—fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma afflicts only 200 adolescents and young adults a year worldwide—it had not been the target of much research. She initiated a study to find its cause, conducting genetic sequencing and other analyses among young patients with the same disease. Simon worked with scientists at Rockefeller University in New York, where her father, Sandy, is a biophysicist; with her own surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, also in New York; and with the New York Genome Center.
“I kept asking why. Asking questions is an important aspect of research—and of Judaism,” says Simon, now 19, a computer science major at Harvard University as well as a dancer, singer and acrobat.
The findings, published last year in the journal Science, turned up a genetic abnormality and may have an even broader significance: The gene is now also implicated in Cushing’s disease (a tumor of the adrenal gland) and a type of breast cancer that is resistant to chemotherapy. Simon is continuing her research through a $25,000 Davidson Fellows Scholarship, which recognizes “profoundly intelligent young people” and provides opportunities for them to develop their talents. In 2014, Simon participated in the White House Science Fair and, earlier this year, introduced President Obama at a press briefing highlighting government investments in science.
“My family has always put a strong emphasis on community,” she says, “whether it’s our synagogue community or the community of cancer patients and survivors. I want to help repair the world in some way.”