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Finding answers: Woman’s gifts support research to treat the disease that took her husband’s life

Clark Starr, Ph.D., was two months away from retiring when he and his wife, Jane, got devastating news. Clark had myelodysplasia, a disease in which the bone marrow doesn’t make enough healthy blood cells. It can progress and become acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).

Jane Starr hopes her gifts will expedite research into better treatments for adults with leukemia.

Clark Starr had spent 43 years as a speech-language pathologist at the University of Minnesota and served as the first chair of the University’s Department of Communication Disorders, now known as the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences. The news meant that instead of treating patients, he’d become a patient himself.

Doctors treated Clark’s myelodysplasia for about a year with blood transfusions and growth factors, Jane Starr says. But his disease progressed to AML within a year.

After two rounds of chemotherapy, it became apparent that traditional treatments weren’t working for Clark’s leukemia, so his care team went back to blood transfusions and growth factors to keep him alive.

Clark Starr died in March 1999, not even two years after he was diagnosed with myelodysplasia. He was 71.

And Jane Starr was frustrated that more couldn’t be done for her husband.

“They’ve accomplished so much with helping children [with cancer] … but they didn’t have any way to treat [Clark’s leukemia],” she says. “And I was really angry about that.”

So later that year, Jane Starr approached the University of Minnesota’s cancer team to find out what she could do to improve the outlook for adults with leukemia. That’s when she learned about leading-edge research on the cancer-fighting power of natural killer cells that Jeffrey Miller, M.D., was conducting.

That December, Starr made her first gift of $10,000 to Miller’s research. “I wanted it to go somewhere where it would help with acute myelogenous leukemia,” she says.

Starr has made similar gifts annually to keep Miller’s research moving forward. And she believes the need to continue supporting this work is as great now as it was when her husband died 10 years ago.

“I read the obituaries, and I still see people dying from the same disease,” she says, acknowledging that research takes time. But she still wishes it would move faster.

Through her continued contributions to Miller’s work, Starr is doing her part to make that happen. She says she’s pleased that Miller’s clinical trials using natural killer cell therapies have shown promising results and hopes her gifts can help bring this investigational treatment to adults with leukemia who so desperately need it.

“I figure it’s money well spent,” Starr says.

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