GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WZZM) - Fighting the war on cancer doesn't just take courageous patients willing to try new treatments, it takes dedicated researchers willing to find breakthroughs that lead to those new treatments.
Many of them spend a lifetime hoping to make a difference. One researcher at the Van Andel Institute did just that.
Curiosity drew Billy Wondergem to the world of science. He developed his compassion after watching his mother battle breast cancer. "He developed a deep sense of empathy for people and really wanted to get underneath medical problems," recalls his father Tim.
That's why Billy decided cancer research is what he would spend the rest of his life doing-- and he did as an intern researching kidney cancer at the Van Andel Institute. "Bill had two of the biggest qualities, he was motivated and energetic and he was very bright," says lead VAI Researcher Kyle Furge.
Those qualities led him to something extraordinary at the age of 24, he discovered a gene that could change the way kidney cancer was diagnosed.
"It's probably not a home run but it's definitely a base hit. And it takes several base hits to win the game," says Dr. Richard Kahnoski, a urologist at Spectrum Health, who extracted the kidney tumors Billy researched. It's how he was able to discover a gene that either causes a tumor to grow fast or slow.
"We hope that this will be able to tell which from which. We don't want to watch a bad one, but we don't know exactly which ones are bad," says Kahnoski.
"The moment that he came we spent probably an hour going back and forth looking things over, because this was a piece of information that no one had seen before," says Kyle Furge who remembers the discovery with a smile. "I was already mapping out how much work Bill was in for for the next two to three years."
Unfortunately, Billy wouldn't get to complete that research. He died in this sleep in the fall of 2010 just a few months after the discovery. His cause of death still unknown.
"It's our hope that people will continue to be inspired by his passion and his belief and one day finding a cure to continue to touch people's lives." Billy's brother Charlie was one of his biggest fans.
Billy's work was recently published in the journal 'Cancer Research.' He is one of the youngest researchers ever to be published as a lead author with only a bachelor degree.
Billy's family know exactly what he would say: "This work isn't done."
And hopefully they can take comfort that Billy's accomplishments are the stepping stone to finding a cure, and that in his short life he made a difference in the world of cancer research.