Christy Bastian knows all too well the existential crisis that cancer can present. She’s experienced two bouts with the dreaded disease as an adult; the most recent in 2020.
The Marco Island resident was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. After a battery of grueling treatments and a mastectomy, she was declared cancer-free in 2012. Last summer, Bastian’s world was rocked when she was stricken by a rare and aggressive form of the malady, anal adenocarcinoma with pagetoid spread.
Radical surgery presented the best odds of survival so she underwent a seven-hour procedure in July that left her with reconstructive surgery on the affected area and a permanent colostomy bag. Bastian is currently recovering from that ordeal and will have to have her conditioned monitored for the rest of her life.
Throughout the dual ordeals and their aftermaths, Bastian’s grit and “glass-half-full” attitude have been essential elements in her recovery. “You have to get through it to get through it,” explained the self-employed forensic accountant. “Never give up. Just never give up.”
Her mindset in the face of this monumental, life-altering challenge set in motion a chain of events that culminated with her inspiring the discovery of a plant-based compound in the Everglades, CRST-1, that may enhance the performance of cancer-fighting drugs.
Named in Bastian’s honor, CRST-1 is a key ingredient in a new medical food; substances that accompanies traditional medicines, improving their effectiveness and shortening treatment times. Discovered by Winter Haven-based GRDG Science, CRST-1 is currently in the testing phase before being submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval.
“It’s really humbling and overwhelming because I’m just one of many thousands of people with cancer,” she said of the recognition. “To have something potentially this significant named after me, it’s an honor I never could have imagined. If I, in some way, have inspired something that can help thousands of people in the future, it’s the best gift that could happen. It’s a gift.”
GRDG’s founder and director of scientific initiatives, Daryl Thompson, and Bastian met last August through a mutual friend, Doris Sweetin, at the Sand Bar on Marco, an encounter that’s led to a lasting friendship. Thompson said he was profoundly moved by Bastian’s plight and the strength she exudes.
“I listened to her tell an important story of how cancer is literally a constant battle,” he said. “You’re getting up every day and you’re fighting. Sometimes it beats you down and you get up. I thought to myself that it’s important that we don’t lose focus on cancer research.”
Thompson has frequented the island for years to vacation and while conducting research in nearby Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and other Everglades locales, getting to know many residents along the way.
He said his company works with the Federal Government on such projects as treatments for cancer and developing biodefense applications, under the guidance of its chief scientific advisor, Roscoe M. Moore Jr., a former U.S. assistant surgeon general, whose resume also includes a stint as epidemic intelligence service officer at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With the advent of COVID-19, GRDG’s focus shifted to finding treatments for the relatively new, rapidly mutating and often fatal viral infection.
Not long before Thompson and Bastian’s initial encounter, Moore had mentioned that he felt it was important the company’s cancer research continue to advance, even in the face of COVID. Those words popped into his consciousness as he chatted with Bastian.
“It was weird, the timing of the whole thing,” said Thompson. “I was literally sitting there listening to someone tell their story about how they’re dealing with cancer and I realized that it’s not how hard you punch, but maybe it’s more just a will to fight? And I said, ‘If this is working for her survival, what if we could take that away from cancer, its tenacity, and that’s Pim.’”
Pim, explained Thompson, is the term that describes what stimulates a cancer cell’s ability to fight against the drugs designed to kill it.
“I thought, ‘What if we could target that, what if we could shut down Pim?’” he added. “It was just serendipity that we were talking to Christie. She inspired us to continue this work. The approach of going after PIM was directly inspired by listening to Christie talk.”
What followed was research that led to the identification of the molecule that Thompson and his research team believe can inhibit Pim, CRST-1.
Medical foods may not be a well-known phrase amongst the general population, but they’ve been around for years in the form of disease-fighting additives found in foods such as bread, for example, he said. Thompson also noted that it’s common for medicines to be derived from nature.
“Aspirin comes from the willow tree, which grows throughout the Everglades,” he said. “And we all know that fruits and vegetables contain chemicals that suppress cancer. So what we wanted to look at was how does a lot of this work. Going back into the Everglades allows us to really find the source of botanically original and ancient compounds, like in the Fakahatchee Strand. Those forests there are really frozen in time and there are things there that contain discoveries that can be used in medical science.”
Bastian closed by urging everyone to be sure to get annual physicals, something she had put off for three years before submitting, at her primary care physician’s insistence that she undergo one. That visit led to the discovery of her most recent bout with cancer.
“People have to go get those physicals,” she said. “If you live in denial and you notice something and you think, ‘Oh it’s nothing, oh I’m being a hypochondriac’ or if you live in any kind of denial; cancer is hard enough to fight when you catch it early, you just make your battle that much harder. I would highly encourage people to pay attention to what their body is telling them and if something isn’t right; go get it looked at because you up your odds of survival. There’s collateral damage when you have cancer and sometimes that collateral damage isn’t just physical, it’s also emotional. The best thing you can do is stay positive, don’t skip doctor appointments, don’t skip follow-ups and pay attention to your body because it helps you live.”