Dr. Zach Morris, Assistant Professor of Human Oncology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (UWSMPH), recently bought a tandem bike so he can ride with his father, Jeff, who can no longer ride on his own.
In March, Jeff and his wife were biking in Florida, and he kept catching his right handlebar on fences. After a crash, he went to a local hospital, where a doctor found that he had no peripheral vision on his right side. An MRI scan revealed a mass in his brain.
They immediately flew back to Madison to see Dr. Mustafa K. Baskaya, a UW Health Neurosurgeon at UWSMPH, who prescribed steroids to reduce symptoms and scheduled surgery.
“After the MRI, we had a sense of what it probably was,” Morris says. “And so, it was nice to have a week before surgery to gather our thoughts, spend some quality time together and say the things that we needed to be sure were said.”
They also took the opportunity to go for a nice ride down the Badger State Trail on the tandem bike.
Pathology from the surgery showed the mass to be a grade 4 astrocytoma, an aggressive and typically incurable brain cancer. Jeff is now undergoing combined radiation and chemotherapy at the UW Carbone Cancer Center with the hope that this will give him some more quality time with his family.
This isn’t the first time a member of Morris’ family came to the UW for cancer treatment. Zach’s grandmother was treated for ovarian cancer at UW and died when he was 10. The experience sparked his interest in working to eradicate cancer.
Morris earned his MD and PhD at Harvard Medical School and completed his Radiation Oncology residency in the UW Department of Human Oncology before becoming an assistant professor in the department in 2016.
“I have always had a strong appreciation for the role that the UW plays in providing cutting-edge cancer treatment in this region and in contributing as a leader to the global cancer research effort. For as long as I can remember, my own goal has been to contribute to the broader effort of cancer research and to provide the very best cancer care that I can for the people in this area that I call home,” Morris says.
In the laboratory, Morris’ research focus is on combining radiation and immunotherapy to fight cancer —for example, delivering radiation to a tumor and then injecting the tumor site with agents that help the immune system recognize and kill additional tumor cells. The goal is localized destruction of the tumor in a way that enables the destroyed cancer cells to function as a potent immune stimulus and personalized anti-cancer vaccine.
Morris was recently awarded $25,000 for this work from proceeds from The Ride, a bicycle fundraiser for cancer research at the University of Wisconsin.
“The Ride provides money for some of the most innovative work to take place,” Morris says. “In order to successfully compete for large federal research grants, you typically need a lot of preliminary data to make a convincing case that the proposed research is feasible. Until you generate a substantial amount of data, you are unlikely to get that funding. Funds generated by The Ride provide opportunities to pursue such innovative ideas and will undoubtedly help accelerate progress and innovation in cancer research.
“Cancer has been around throughout human history and for all that we’ve learned and accomplished in that time, we still see too many people dying from this disease. Research is the only way that we are going to change this and innovative new approaches are how we’re going to eventually cure cancer.”
When Morris and his family participated in The Ride last year, Jeff almost certainly had the tumor in his brain. They just didn’t know it at the time.
“We had no idea this was on the horizon,” Morris says. “You never know when you’re going to be the one who will benefit from the UW’s research and resources. We’re all in this together. By participating in and contributing to The Ride, we can help advance cancer care both here and globally. Everyone knows someone who will benefit from that, whether it’s now or sometime in the future.”
Morris will participate in The Ride again on Sept. 17. “We have the tandem bike ready, and we’re hoping that my dad might be able to do The Ride as well. We’ll see.”