Patient to philanthropist
Although just out of high school, Matt Vogel left a lasting legacy for others facing rare skull base tumors
In the years since Matthew Vogel died, part of him has continued on at the University of Michigan.
A native of Kansas who was studying at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Matt lost his life to sinonasal undifferentiated cancer, or SNUC, in 1997. But his final gift continues to provide hope for others like him, others who will get the difficult news that they have a rare and little-understood skull base tumor with a poor prognosis.
Not only did Matt make sure that samples of his own tissue were saved for future research, he asked that the money he had saved for college -- bolstered by donations from his family and his many, many friends -- be used to establish a research fund in the U-M Medical School. Its goal: to facilitate research into SNUC and other rare cancers.
"When I learned that this was what he wanted done, I thought it was about the most generous thing I'd heard in my entire life," recalls Lawrence J. Marentette, M.D., Matt's surgeon and the director of U-M's Cranial Base Program. "He had his full college fund. It could easily have been used for his brother, or to pay down a mortgage on a home, or just about anything -- but instead his parents followed Matthew's wishes and established an endowed research fund in his name."
Over the last decade, the funding has helped to uncover new biomarkers for SNUC that hold the potential to be targets for future treatments. Matt's fund is also fostering a new partnership between Marentette and U-M's Arul Chinnaiyan, M.D., Ph.D., the inaugural director of the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology. Together they hope to uncover the genetic underpinnings of SNUC tumors using the latest genetic sequencing technology. The objective is both to better understand how and why the tumors originate, and to identify genetic mutations that might make the tumors vulnerable to different therapies.
Because SNUC is so rare, every additional patient whose sample can be sequenced greatly adds to the knowledge about the disease.
Meanwhile, great strides are also being made on a related front: the ability to target the tumors with radiation.
"Patients come to us having read the literature. They know what the survival rates for this cancer normally are," says Marentette. "But seven out of our eight most recent patients are living disease free today. Here at Michigan, we're at a point where we can offer them some hope."
Marentette continues, "The surgery techniques and the chemotherapy have pretty much stayed the same." The big difference is the way U-M radiation oncologist Avraham Eisbruch, M.D., has been refining the delivery of radiation, he says.
Matt was born in 1976 in Topeka, Kansas. His mother, Carol, worked for Washburn University and his father, Jim, worked for the state. His brother, Michael, was four years older. There was no shortage of rough-housing, ribbing and good-natured teasing as the boys, both bright, active and extremely athletic, grew into men.
"Matt was a real outdoorsy kid, healthy and robust, hardly ever sick," says his mother. "He played a lot of soccer. In high school, his team took second in the state in a triple overtime loss. He was a big kid and he took 'em on. He was a defender."
Jim Vogel was a Boy Scout leader and Matt loved camping trips to New Mexico, Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. Through the Boy Scouts, he earned the rank of Eagle Scout.
Matt graduated from high school in 1995 with a GPA higher than 4.5 -- one of the highest scores ever at his school -- and the following September, he joined the freshman class at St. Olaf, diving into studies of art, philosophy, religion and literature.
But soon, Matt developed nosebleeds and felt congested. When he came home in March for spring break, he went to the family doctor. Says his mother, "He took one look and said, 'There's something up there that looks wrong.' "
Matt did not return to St. Olaf that spring. Instead, the family took action. When the Vogels learned that their son would need cranial base surgery, they did careful research to determine the best place to go. Two names kept coming up: Marentette, and Donald Ross, M.D., at the U-M.
Carol Vogel's brother lived in Livonia, Michigan, so the Vogels moved in with them and Matt began aggressive treatment. On May 10, 1996, during a complex, 15-hour surgery, Marentette removed an orange-sized tumor from behind Matt's forehead.
"Before Dr. Ross and I were seeing Matthew for his first post-operative visit, we reviewed results from the lab. And when we saw the diagnosis was SNUC, the two of us just looked at each other and basically in so many words said, 'Oh my god, no.' We had seen a patient with SNUC before and knew what little there was in the literature about it. It's a sinking feeling that you get, almost like you'd swallowed a hunk of lead."
'Defeat was never an option'
As he healed, Matt listened to music -- he loved everything but country and rap, says his mother -- and got to know other young people battling cancer. College buddies came to visit for some normalcy and fun. After two weeks, Matt started chemotherapy and radiation.
"There were times the guy must have felt miserable, but I never heard him complain about it," says his brother. "Defeat was never an option. He was always looking for the next option, asking 'What can we do next?' or 'How can we do that?'"
Matt was determined to get well enough to go back to school. His experience with cancer gave him a goal: to use his brilliance in chemistry to one day find a cure through pharmaceutical research. By September, he was back at St. Olaf. During Thanksgiving break, he returned to the U-M for cosmetic surgery.
"Dr. Marentette did a beautiful job and biopsied the whole area. It was totally clear," says Carol Vogel. "Matt kept getting stronger and stronger. We had a great Christmas."
In February 1997, a chest X-ray revealed that the cancer had spread and Matt returned to Michigan. Matt and his doctors fought hard with high-dose cytoxin and other chemotherapies, but the tumors fought back.
Carol Vogel adds that the day Matt died, he asked his doctors if there might be anything else in the lab they could try on him.
That was August 12, 1997. He was 20.
Over the years, family and friends have supported the research fund, and now friends of U-M's Cranial Base program are joining them. Ultimately, Matt's family hopes that the fund will continue to grow and will provide the support necessary to continue to advance research into SNUC and other rare skull base cancers.