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Could this Research Cure Rare Leukemia? An interview with Dr. Eirini Papapetrou

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RUNX1 researcher Eirini Papapetrou, MD, PhD from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Eirini Papapetrou, MD, PhD from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

by Trish Adkins

When Eirini Papapetrou, MD, PhD from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai started her lab, she devoted her research to developing specialized iPSC models. 

This might not mean a lot to those of us who are not researchers. But these models—made from patient-derived cells—could be the key to understanding the drivers behind certain types of acute myeloid leukemia (AML), one of the most difficult and deadliest types of pediatric leukemia. 

The development of iPSC models is challenging—so challenging that several years ago, none of these models existed. For the past 7 years, Dr. Papapetrou, who is funded through the ALSF partnership with the Babich Foundation, developed sustainable models that she is using to study the RUNX1 mutation. This particular mutation is an inherited platelet disorder with a predisposition to certain types of blood malignancies, including AML.

We interviewed Dr. Papapetrou about her RUNX1 research as well as her scientific career:

Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF): When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Dr. Eirini Papapetrou (EP): I don’t think I had any idea. I liked reading everything I could get my hands on, so sometimes I wanted to be a writer. And, ironically, I ended up full-circle now spending a great deal of my time writing manuscripts and grant applications (not to mention responding to email).

ALSF: So, what was one of your favorite books as a child?

EP: When I was around 16 years old, I read the biography of Marie Curie (written by her daughter) and remember being mesmerized by her life, her dedication to her research, which led to groundbreaking discoveries and finally to recognition against huge odds.

ALSF: How did you land on physician-scientist as a career?

EP: I first went to medical school in Greece. At the time, it was not at all obvious to me that a physician-scientist career was even an option, as there are no joint MD/PhD programs in Greece. But when I graduated from medical school, I could not conceive of a life away from an academic environment and kept coming back for more. 

I could not imagine any other career path that would be more rewarding and enjoyable.

ALSF: Tell me about your research. How did you choose that research?

EP: My project is about the development of blood cancers in children who have inherited mutations in a gene predisposing to leukemia, RUNX1. My goal is to develop models of leukemia progression in these children and study them to understand key events underlying this process.

I am fascinated with the question of how cancer develops through premalignant stages and what critical cell fate transitions lead to cancer. I think the models and tools my lab has created in the past few years provide a unique opportunity to address this question and try to understand the cellular transformation process. We hope to identify key cellular and molecular events underlying progression to leukemia in patients with predisposing mutations, so we can eventually intervene and prevent it.


ALSF: What challenges have you faced in your career?
 

EP: Looking back now, I think a big challenge was that I had to craft my own physician/scientist path without an existing template when I started my studies back in Greece, my home country. Another challenge was the many relocations during my career and adaptation to different physical and cultural environments. Starting my lab was also a significant challenge, as it required many skills that I did not have, such as hiring and managing people and effectively delegating tasks.

ALSF: Why is childhood cancer research important?

EP: It is hard to think of anything more heartbreaking than a child with cancer. And, from a purely scientific perspective, childhood cancers are very interesting to study in order to understand general principles of cancer development, because they are genetically more simple and less heterogeneous than cancers in adults.

Since 2016, ALSF has partnered with the Babich Foundation to fund eight innovative, multi-year research projects investigating the RUNX1 mutation, an inherited platelet disorder with a predisposition to certain types of blood malignancies, including acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Read more here.