‘Rapid Autopsy’ Programs Seek Clues To Cancer Within Hours Of Death

After Keith Beck died of bile duct cancer last year, family members said more than 900 people showed up to pay respects to the popular athletic director at the University of Findlay in northwestern Ohio.

Many were former students who recalled acts of kindness during Beck’s nearly 30-year career: $20 given to a kid who was broke, textbooks bought for a student whose parents were going through bankruptcy, a spot cleared to sleep on Beck’s living room floor.

But few knew about Beck’s final gesture of generosity. The 59-year-old had agreed to a “rapid autopsy,” a procedure conducted within hours of his death on March 28, 2017, so that scientists could learn as much as possible from the cancer that killed him.

“He was 100 percent for it,” recalled his ex-wife, Nancy Beck, 63, who cared for Beck at the end of his life. “It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but it was important.”

Beck donated his body to a rapid-autopsy research study at the Ohio State University, part of a small but growing effort by more than a dozen medical centers nationwide. The idea is to obtain tumor tissue immediately after death — before it has a chance to degrade. Scientists say such samples are the key to understanding the genetics of cancers that spread through the body, thwarting efforts to cure them.

“People are recognizing that cancer is more heterogeneous than we realize,” said Dr. Sameek Roychowdhury, a medical scientist at OSU’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Different parts of your body may have different cancer cells, even though they originated from the same cancer.”

In Beck’s case, results from the rapid autopsy showed he had developed a mutation that caused the experimental drug he was taking, known as an FGFR inhibitor, to stop working. Roychowdhury and colleagues plan to report on Beck’s case in an upcoming paper.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit news service committed to in-depth coverage of health care policy and politics. And we report on how the health care system – hospitals, doctors, nurses, insurers, governments, consumers – works. KHN is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, Calif., that is dedicated to filling the need for trusted information on national health issues.

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