The Exeter Bulletin — Winter 2008
Dr. Connie Trimble '80
January 15, 2008
Practicing Medicine, Inside and Out
Researcher Dr. Connie Trimble '80 has been called a phenom, a rising star, even "a poster girl for cancer research."At Johns Hopkins, where she holds a triple threat of appointments in oncology, pathology, and obstetrics/gynecology, Trimble is working on a vaccine soon to enter Phase II clinical trials that could become a powerful weapon against the human papilloma virus, which causes cervical cancer.
"I work on therapeutic vaccines," she explains, "which help treat someone who already has an ongoing infection. We're trying to educate a person's immune system to target premalignant cells that have HPV and kill them. This approach is relatively new—it's a little George Jetson, but we believe it's going to work."
And if it does work, the consequences could be enormous:"We've known how to screen for cervical cancer for 50 years, but it's still the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women," she says. "It's a compelling problem from a scientific point of view, a policy point of view and a completely human, global point of view."
When she started her research—following women with cervical cancer—she discovered that 20 percent of her patients with high-grade dysplasia, a lesion that develops into fullblown
Cancer, would heal without medical intervention."Their immune systems were doing what we want the vaccine to do," she notes. "So our job was to figure out what goes into presenting a successful immunological response, and then develop a vaccine that can give the immune systems of cancer patients a boost."
While Trimble is admittedly fascinated by how science happens, she'll tell you it's the time she spends with her patients that keeps her going."Physicians who treat patients are second-class citizens," she says of the stratosphere of academic, research-oriented medicine in which she moves."But my patients are what keep me human, what keep me grounded. They're funny, they're brave and I'm touched when they reach out to me."
She notes that most high-profile research begins with an investigation of a problem on mice in a carefully controlled laboratory setting. "While you can accomplish so much doing preclinical bench work, I'm interested in the reverse, going from patients back to the lab—the species of interest is, after all, human," she observes."I take a set of very closely annotated clinical observations and go back and see what might be a plausible mechanism. With this kind of research you're going backwards, and that's me. I've been going backwards my whole life. I never really fit in one place."
Except, she admits, at Exeter. Her parents were immigrants from China—albeit highly educated immigrants; her father was a protein chemist at several prestigious labs, including the NIH. Nonetheless, Exeter "was my first real community," she says."It gave me traction, a point of reference. I still have very close friends on the faculty." She even admits to returning to Exeter for vacation, staying with math instructor Rick Parris and his wife, Pam, coordinator of academic support services."Rick said to me, 'You know, Con, most people don't come here to relax. They see those pine trees and they get fight or flight.' "
Then she launches into a story about a casual encounter with a senior woman on the Hopkins faculty she knew only slightly."I was going off on this riff about how the culture of medicine selects for intelligence and motivation, but those aren't enough for a first-class institution—it's also important for it to be civilized. And she asked me, 'Where did you go to school?' I told her Exeter, and she said, 'Me, too.' She recognized that kind of thinking. We're not complacent thinkers, and we're not just going through an exercise for the sake of proving something. Exeter was the first time in my life I ever felt normal."
— Susannah Clark '84