LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif.—He had a smile that could light up a room. He never stopped smiling. He was a charming, smiling goofball, as Theresa Beech tells it—and at the age of 11, her son Daniel was diagnosed with a common and fatal pediatric bone cancer called osteosarcoma. He lived two more years.
The death of a child can crush most parents. But Beech isn’t most parents—she’s a satellite communications network design engineer for NASA, a.k.a. a space engineer. She wanted to know why the oldest-known form of cancer doesn’t have a more effective cure. She wanted to know why, at any given moment, two to three children are dying from osteosarcoma in her home county in Maryland. She wanted to know why Daniel’s outcome couldn’t be different.
“Our grand sum total of medical progress for osteosarcoma over the last 30 years is exactly zero,” Beech said with some fury at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference here on Tuesday. “We need to create our own hope, based in the current reality, but which imagines a better future.”
So Beech studied up and taught herself genetics to analyze data in Daniel’s tumor. Identified two drugs to target and convinced doctors to use them. He lived six more months instead of dying immediately from his disease.
“A U.S. marine said to me the day after Daniel died: ‘Daniel was tough,’” Beech said, her voice wavering.
As he lay ill, Daniel urged his mother to continue her work. And she has. Beech used her scientific know-how to identify vulnerabilities and chokepoints not in satellite systems but in osteosarcoma. She discovered that different types of osteosarcoma create different outcomes and thus different responses to chemotherapy. Now she’s trying to get a clinical trial for kids going with her organization Because of Daniel. Its slogan: “Punching osteosarcoma in the face.”
“I’ve heard too many times to count that…it’s just too difficult to tackle,” Beech said. “I’m a space engineer. We do difficult.”
She cited paraphrased John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech that kicked off the global space race. “We must choose to cure osteosarcoma not because it is easy,” she said, paraphrasing the U.S. president, “but because it is difficult.”
For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference, click here.