When doctors told John Kanzius he had nine months to live, he quietly thanked God for his blessings and prepared to die.
Then 58, he had lived a good life, with a loving wife, two successful adult daughters and a gratifying career.
Now he had leukemia and was ready to accept his fate, but the visits to the cancer ward shook him. Faces haunted him, the bald and bandaged heads, bodies slumped in wheelchairs, and children who could not play.
Like him, they had endured chemotherapy treatments that caused their weight to plummet, hands to shake, bodies to weaken, and immune systems to break down to the point that the slightest germ could be deadly. Kanzius knew their agony. He believed if cancer didn’t kill him first, the treatments surely would.
He thought there had to be a more humane way to treat cancer.
Kanzius did not have a medical background, not even a bachelor’s degree, but he knew radios. He had built and fixed them since he was a child, collecting transmitters, transceivers, antennas and amplifiers, earning an amateur radio operator license. Kanzius knew how to send radio wave signals around the world. If he could transmit them into cancer cells, he wondered, could he then direct the radio waves to destroy tumors, while leaving healthy cells intact?
Awake in bed one night in 2003, as the clock ticked past 2, Kanzius pulled himself from beneath the covers, leaving his sleeping wife, Marianne. He staggered down a flight of stairs, grabbed some copper wires, boxes, antennas and Marianne’s pie pans, and began building a machine.
For months, Kanzius tinkered, using the pie pans to create an electronic circuit, often waking Marianne with his clanging. By day, he sent her out with supply lists: mineral mixtures, metals, wires.
His early-morning experiments would lead him to one of the nation’s top cancer researcher centers, and earn the support of a Nobel Prize winner.
When it came to electronics, Marianne had always known her husband was gifted. But still she worried: Was he going mad? “My God, honey,” she thought, “none of the doctors can fix this. How can you?”
Kanzius’ mother wanted him to be a priest or a doctor, but he followed his father, a technician and ham radio operator who taught his son to love electronics and told him they would soon take over the world.
When Kanzius was 22, after two years of trade school, he got a job at RCA as a technical assistant. On his first day, he fixed the company’s color television transmitters, which had been the subject of lawsuits because they did not comply with Federal Communications Commission guidelines. He was promoted to the engineering department.
He worked at RCA for two years. In 1966, he took a job at a television station as director of engineering. Kanzius became president and co-owner of a television and radio station company in 1984. He retired in 2001.
In the winter of 2002 Kanzius felt soreness in his abdomen. On Good Friday, he went in for a CT scan. Doctors told him he had five to seven years to live.
The drive home felt like the longest of his life. On the way, he called Marianne. She noted that moment in her journal:
“I hadn’t heard from him. Then the phone rang. ‘Honey, it’s bad. I have a tumor in my stomach. They’re not certain, but they think it’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.’ The phone went silent.”
He underwent chemotherapy, a few times a week for six months -- but he stayed upbeat, and doctors told him the cancer had gone into remission.
A year after his diagnosis, on Good Friday again, doctors gave him bad news: He had an aggressive type of cancer that had not actually gone into remission. They gave him nine months. Doctors said he needed a bone marrow transplant, and Kanzius traveled to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for a second opinion. During his visit, he noticed the children in the cancer ward. Kanzius went home thinking about them, and soon mapped out his idea.
He knew that metal would heat when exposed to radio waves. He wanted to focus the waves by inserting metal particles into tumors. The infused cells would be placed in a radiofrequency field. The waves would pass through the human body, and the particles injected into the cancer would heat and kill the cells without harming anything else.
He built a machine to send the waves, while undergoing his second round of chemotherapy. This time the treatments nearly killed him. He spent three or four days a week at the hospital, sometimes for as long as eight hours. He came home to rest, only to toil over his project.
By Christmas 2003, Kanzius could barely walk. Around that time, his 83-year-old mother died from lung cancer. Kanzius was too weak to board a plane for her funeral.
He drew pictures for Marianne, leaving them around the house. One showed him as a stick figure curled over a toilet as she took care of him. “A sign of real love,” he wrote. “You are my reason for living.”
Weary and weak, he tested his machine with hot dogs, then liver, then steak. He injected minerals into the meat and placed the slabs into his machine. To his delight, the injected portions of meat burned. But would it work on people?
Marianne marveled at his ingenuity and determination. She took a walk one night and noticed the brilliant colors of leaves soon to fall from trees.
“Is it a lesson in life?” she wrote in her journal. “Do we see how wonderful, how beautiful, how magnificent someone is, just as we’re about to lose them?”
The worst of Kanzius’ treatment was over by spring 2005, and the cancer this time was in remission.
Reinvigorated, Kanzius knew he needed to get the word out about his discovery. He had lunch with a competitor from his days in the news industry, the managing editor of a local newspaper. He told him about his project, and the editor assigned a reporter to find out more. By summer, articles began to appear, and the community grew interested.
Dr. David A. Geller, co-director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s liver cancer program, read about Kanzius’ machine and called him.
Kanzius had secured a patent for his machine, and asked a company that made transmitters to build a model. He sent it to the medical center so Geller could perform tests.
Kanzius shared his theory with his leukemia doctor at M.D. Anderson. Kanzius said he wanted to show his machine to Dr. Steven A. Curley, an oncologist on staff who specialized in radiofrequency cancer treatment.
Doctors already use a treatment called radiofrequency ablation to kill cancer. The method involves inserting needles into tumors and killing them with electrodes. The invasive procedure is limited because it can only reach certain sites, mostly small tumors, and it can damage healthy cells in the surrounding area.
Kanzius’ doctor contacted Curley and told him he did not know whether his patient was mad, but his idea had attracted a lot of attention. Curley called Kanzius and asked whether he could find a substance that could attach to cancer cells and burn when hit with radio waves, sparing healthy cells.
Kanzius said he might be able to use nanoparticles, which are so small that 75,000 to 100,000 lined up side by side equal the width of a strand of human hair. He thought nanoparticles could potentially be directed to travel through the bloodstream and stick only to cancer cells -- a patient would swallow a pill or take a shot containing them. But would they burn?
Kanzius needed to get his hands on some nanoparticles.
Curley knew that Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard Smalley, who specialized in nanoscience, was also being treated for cancer at M.D. Anderson. Curley got in touch with Smalley and explained Kanzius’ theory.
Smalley did not think the nanoparticles would burn but agreed to give Curley two vials.
In June 2005, Curley met with Kanzius and Marianne. He pulled the vials of nanoparticles out of his suit jacket pocket, and Kanzius placed them in the radio field of his machine and turned it on.
Marianne captured that day in her journal:
“John asked, ‘Is this what you expected?’ For the first time in my life, I realized that a smile starts behind the eyes before it starts at the mouth, for Steve responded, ‘This is much more than I expected.’ I watched his smile engulf his entire face.”
Marianne finally realized: “Could what John’s working on be real?” Curley phoned Smalley to tell him the news.
He remembered Smalley’s response: “Holy God.”
Smalley asked his colleagues at Rice University to work with Curley’s team at M.D. Anderson on the project.
Shortly before he died in October 2005, Smalley made a final request to Curley, who would not forget his words: “Nothing has the potential to help people, to help patients, more than this. You have to promise me to keep doing this work.”
With the project moving along, Kanzius invited scholars, politicians and scientists to Erie for demonstrations. This spring, a Canadian health minister had a random thought, after noticing how quickly condensation formed on the test tube walls during the process: With the world’s need for fresh water, he asked Kanzius, could his machine be used to desalinate water?
A few weeks later, Kanzius tried to heat and distill water mixed with Morton’s salt in a test tube, which he placed into his generator. He turned on the radio frequencies and held a match to the salt water.
The radio waves had weakened the bonds that held together the elements that made up the water, and ignited the hydrogen. The results left scientists excited by the possibility of separating hydrogen -- the most abundant element in the universe -- from salt water to use as a fuel.
Rustum Roy, a Penn State University chemist and water science expert, called it the most remarkable discovery in water science in the last century. His team is working on the saltwater project at Penn State, using Kanzius’ machine.
The saltwater discovery pleased Kanzius, but the cancer project took precedence.
Four years after he came up with his idea, researchers continued experiments and killed human cancer cells in petri dishes using nanoparticles and his machine. They recently killed 100% of cancer cells grown in the livers of rabbits, using Kanzius’ method.
Curley said the treatment is the most promising he has ever seen because it has the potential to kill cancer -- without invasive treatment or surgery -- that doctors currently have no way of detecting. The next step for scientists is to perfect a method of binding nanoparticles with antibodies that, when introduced into the bloodstream, will attach only to cancer cells while avoiding normal cells. He said the treatment could work on any kind of cancer, and he estimates clinical trials are three to four years away.
“Possible?” Curley said. “Yes. Not simple.”
Last year, Kanzius began raising money for his research with the help of his neighbors. High school students held fundraisers, foundations offered grants, and children sold lemonade. Donations soon reached more than $1 million. This May, Erie officials gave Kanzius a key to the city and declared an official John Kanzius Day. A former Erie mayor announced a goal of raising $3 million to fund research.
But the accolades meant little if the wider medical community did not recognize the research. It had to be reviewed by a panel of medical experts and published in a scientific journal.
In June, scientists submitted manuscripts based on the findings to journals. Three months later, Curley called Kanzius with news: The manuscripts, with Kanzius listed as a co-author, would be published in December in Cancer, an oncology medical journal. The results appeared online last week.
Kanzius hung up and yelled the news to Marianne, who was watching television downstairs. She screamed.
At 63, Kanzius is still receiving treatment for his cancer, which has recurred. He knows the process he developed may not be ready in time to save his life, but the project was never about him. “I want to see the treatment work,” he said. “That would be my thanks.”
For Marianne, the journey led her to question her faith in God, only to have it reaffirmed.
She is hopeful the invention will help future generations, but she lives in terror, staying up at night to make sure Kanzius is still breathing. She cannot imagine waking up without her husband beside her.
“I’m selfish,” she said. “If something can help him, I would like this to help him.
“Yes, I hope.”