Some of Mitch Kluesner's happiest high-school memories are of hanging out with Zach Sobiech during the late Lakeland teen's chemotherapy treatments.
The pair, wearing blue Forever Lazy fleece onesies with matching footie socks, would blow bubbles in other cancer patients' rooms, concoct crazy sandwiches, and serenade staff and patients at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital in Minneapolis, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
"It was always our time to have fun and goof off," Kluesner said of the Tuesday appointments. "I would play hooky so I could go with him. It was a fun space. Even though it was a really sh-- situation, we made the best of it."
Kluesner, 21, who lives in Woodbury, met Zach during their first year at Stillwater Area High School — a year after Zach, whose hit song "Clouds" became an Internet sensation, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer. Sobiech died in May 2013 at age 18.
"It was kind of a bromance from the beginning," Kluesner said. "He was very affable, very charismatic. It felt very liberating, in many senses, to be with someone who I could just talk about anything with. He was very open, very philosophical."
Kluesner, a senior biochemistry and neuroscience major at the University of Minnesota, is now working on finding a cure for the disease that killed his friend.
Kluesner received an Undergraduate Research Opportunity to spend the summer working with researchers who are investigating the gene PVT1, recently linked to tumor growth in osteosarcoma.
About 400 children and adolescents are diagnosed with osteosarcoma each year in the United States. Osteosarcoma tumors develop in rapidly growing bones during a growth spurt; boys have a 20 percent greater risk of getting them.
Survival rates depend on the location of the tumor and whether the cancer spreads. The overall cure rate is about 65 percent, but when the cancer spreads, there is only a 20 percent chance of survival.
Treatments for osteosarcoma have been stagnant for the past few decades, which is one of the reasons it is so deadly. "By understanding how PVT1 drives tumor growth, we aim to elucidate a new therapeutic target in the treatment of osteosarcoma and other soft tissue cancers," Kluesner said.
Much of their research is being funded by the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Research Fund, which has raised almost $1.16 million to date. Before he died, Sobiech asked that proceeds from the sales of "Clouds," which has been viewed more than 12.7 million times on YouTube, go to osteosarcoma research at the University of Minnesota.
One of the researchers is Branden Moriarity, an assistant professor in the hematology/oncology division of the Department of Pediatrics who heads up the team Kluesner is on. Moriarity also is working on a new therapy that utilizes the patient's immune system to attack osteosarcoma cells.
A clinical trial on the new therapy, scheduled to start later this year, would not have been possible if not for the money raised from "Clouds."
"If it wasn't for the Sobiech funding, I wouldn't have this lab, and a lot of this would not have happened, or it would be very much further behind than where it is now," Moriarity said. "We published our paper last summer, and we're going to clinical trial at the end of this year. That doesn't usually happen. Usually, a finding to the clinical trial is 10 years. A lot of serendipity is involved, obviously, but the funding was critical as well to get the work done and published."
Kluesner spent part of a recent weekday morning pipetting DNA into miniature centrifuge tubes in a third-floor lab at the university's Cancer and Cardiovascular Research Building.
"We grow the bacteria in these little tubes overnight, and then we take them and spin them down in a centrifuge, really fast, and then they all fall to the bottom," Kluesner said, carefully filling a tiny tube with liquid and writing "ER1-4 #16 7/25/16 mini" on top.
The work may seem trivial, he said, but he hopes it is a "step towards a larger picture, a cure, a greater good so that no one will have to suffer from osteosarcoma as Zach did."
Sobiech, who was diagnosed in the fall of 2009, underwent 10 surgeries, spent more than 100 days in the hospital for chemotherapy treatments and had 15 radiation treatments. Kluesner said his friend believed that everyone experienced the same amount of pain in life — "it was just a matter of how spread out it was."
"I'm not sure I believe that, but what I do know is that Zach eventually suffered," he said. "There is a point where pain becomes suffering."
The friends took Advanced Placement Biology together and shared an interest in chemistry, biochemistry, botany, sociology and psychology, Kluesner said.
"I remember in high school going up and talking to his doctors about what was going on," he said. "And I remember learning about specific genes or proteins in biology class, and it was actually really relevant because it was what was being treated in Zach's cancer."
Kluesner volunteers at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital, tutors a cancer patient and plans to go to medical school.
Zach's friendship with Kluesner opened up an opportunity for Zach "to talk openly about his cancer," said Laura Sobiech, Zach's mother.
"They both had an interest in science and that world," Laura Sobiech said. "Through Mitch, Zach was able to objectively look at his cancer — through scientific eyes — and just talk about it. They could just be real with each other. There wasn't an uncomfortable elephant in the room. It was, like, 'Hey, you've got cancer. Let's talk about this and explore it.'"
Sobiech said she thinks her son would have enjoyed doing the same sort of research that Kluesner is doing this summer.
"His heart was in this kind of work," she said. "I really feel like Mitch has sort of stepped in and taken that baton where Zach just couldn't take it. In a lot of ways, I feel like they're still working together on this: Zach is still raising the money, and Mitch is doing the research."
Kluesner accompanied the Sobiech family to Italy and France in March 2012. The group visited Lourdes, France; the water from Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1858, supposedly has healing powers.
Two months later, Kluesner got a text from his friend that read: "You should probably come over."
Sobiech's cancer had "spread all over, blowing up in his pelvis and lungs," Kluesner said. "They could either cut out his entire leg, and his quality of life would be sh--, pardon my French, or they could let it take its course."
The two liked to cook together, grow vegetables, play music — Sobiech played the guitar and Kluesner plays cello — and make things explode. They once accidentally set part of the road outside the Sobiechs' house on fire after mixing together powdered sugar and an unnamed oxidizer.
"It was like this fireball was burning in the middle of Lakeland," Kluesner said. "Zach's sister, Alli, came running out and started yelling at us, and we just started laughing, so that's a good memory."
Sobiech's death taught him that the "most important thing you have in life is the relationships around you," Kluesner said.
"You can be successful. You can make money. You can have fame. It doesn't matter," he said. "At the end of your life, relationships are really all that carries weight and all that you can derive meaning from.
"I tell people I love them just as much as I can — just because it's so important, because you can lose people," he said.
"I was very fortunate to have so much time to say goodbye to Zach. As painful as it is to watch somebody die and slowly succumb to their illness, I can't imagine him dying in a car accident. Effectively Zach will always be 18 to me. He's never going to age in my mind."
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