Love story leads to clinical trial of potential new treatment for women's cancers

Melissa Varner
January 11, 2022
Matt and Sheryl Prisby
Matt and Sheryl Prisby

It’s 1985 in Charleston, South Carolina. Matt Prisby is at a salon he chose from an ad in the Yellow Pages.

He never expected his whole life would change the moment the hairdresser called his name. “I looked up and the minute our eyes met, I knew she was the one,” he said.

For Matt, it was love at first sight. For Sheryl, well, Matt says she had a boyfriend at the time. But he was patient and got to know her better with each haircut. A year and a half later, he asked her out to ice cream.

“And that was the start of our 28 years together,” Matt said.

The end came too soon, cut short by cervical cancer.

Each year in South Carolina, it is estimated that 170 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and 75 women will die from the disease.

Annual screenings can help detect and prevent cervical cancer. Sheryl put hers off after her gynecologist retired, Matt said. By the time she was diagnosed it had already spread.

She was just 52 when she died in August 2014.

Ever since, Matt has dedicated himself to raising money for cancer research in his wife’s memory. He established the Sheryl Sirisky Prisby Scholarship in Gynecological Oncology through a bequest in his will. Matt is also an active fundraiser, raising nearly $80,000 for the scholarship from Facebook fundraisers for the MUSC Foundation. Sheryl’s scholarship is the first dedicated exclusively to the research of women’s cancers at Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“The minute our eyes met, I knew she was the one.”

Most recently, Sheryl’s scholarship helped advance promising research by Joe Delaney, an assistant professor at MUSC and Hollings researcher. Delaney, who has a doctorate in molecular and cellular biology, recently received clearance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to move forward with a clinical trial of a new combination of drugs to fight cervical, ovarian and prostate cancers.

In lab tests, this combination of drugs killed ovarian cancer cells that were found to be resistant to chemotherapy. Delaney says the drugs are already safely used by millions of people – just not for cancer. Yet.

Donor Matt Prisby with researcher Dr. Joe Delaney
Donor Matt Prisby with researcher Dr. Joe Delaney

“So, one of them is Metformin, an anti-diabetic drug. Another one is an anti-malaria drug, and another is an anti-HIV drug. When we combine them, they're able to kill these cancer cells,” Delaney explained.

He estimates the first phase of the clinical trial will start in 2022. The research that led to this point would not have been possible without Matt and dozens of donors like him, he continued.

“There's nothing I can say that really summarizes my gratitude for him,” Delaney said. “Other than those two simple words: Thank you.”

What would Sheryl think of how Matt has honored her memory?

“That's a tough one,” Matt said, his voice filled with emotion. “I think that she would feel very thankful that we might be on the verge of being able to save people from her disease.”

About the Author

Melissa Varner