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Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation Blog

Women Curing Childhood Cancer: Meet Future Doctor Sabrina Wang

by Trish Adkins, ALSF

For as long as she can remember Sabrina Wang, a student at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, wanted to be a scientist. As an undergraduate student, Sabrina received a 2016 Pediatric Oncology Student Training (POST) grant from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF) to work with Drs. Eric Raabe, Charles Eberhart and Jeffrey Rubens at Johns Hopkins. 

Sabrina spent the summer working in the lab, learning and studying atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor (AT/RT), a very rare, fast-growing tumor that typically starts in the brain, kidneys, spinal cord or other soft tissues of the body. About half of these tumors occur in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls movement and balance or in the brain stem, the part of the brain that controls essential life functions like breathing, blood pressure and heart rate. Sabrina’s work focused specifically on MYC-driven AT/RT. MYC is a gene that drives the growth of some cancer cells. 

Part of her research work also involved the ability to see the clinical side of research and the tangible impact of research on the lives of real patients. 

Sabrina entered the undergraduate student competition at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) with a poster based on her POST grant work—and she won the top prize beating out several hundred entries. 

Now, Sabrina is continuing her pediatric oncology education and career as a research technologist—focusing on gathering, cataloging and organizing data—with Dr. Rubens at Johns Hopkins. We spoke with Sabrina about her research interests and her future goals:

What made you want to get into science and research?

(SW)When I was 10 years old, I wanted to be a scientist and a pianist. I couldn’t decide between the two.

I have always wanted to be in medicine for as long as I can remember, but it actually wasn’t until I received the POST award two years ago, worked in Dr. Raabe’s lab, and experienced my first research conference that I could really see myself pursuing both research and medicine as part of my future career.
 
What are obstacles that you have faced?

(SW) I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by supportive people who have helped me overcome any hurdles that pass my way. 

If we’re talking literal obstacles, I’d say that 85% of all lab furniture is at an awkwardly tall height for me. I have never been able to see the inside of an over-the-range microwave.
 
Who are your role models?

(SW) Oh, definitely my mentors – Dr. Raabe and Dr. Rubens – for showing me the possibility of what I can pursue in my future and for always pushing me forward. I’m their biggest fan. They’ve lead by example on how to integrate science and medicine together, how to balance research, patients, and family life while being tremendously gracious (also known as, ridiculously perfect). Since I’ve been at the Baltimore campus, Dr. Leana Wen has been someone who I aspire to be in the future – her drive and compassion are qualities I try to emulate as well. And growing up, Anne of Green Gables was my literary heroine. (I, too, tried to cram as many long words as possible everywhere.)

If cancer was cured, what would you be doing?

(SW) Most likely painting and baking lots of sourdough! (But I would definitely still be in science.)

Was there a moment when you felt the impact your research might have on curing childhood cancer?

(SW) The “a-ha” moment for me happened during my second day of shadowing in the clinic. My mentor asked a parent how a standard chemotherapy treatment had gone. Coincidentally, the treatment was also a drug I had investigated in the lab, and the connection between research and what it meant for patients suddenly fell into place for me. It’s something I often read about in literature, but to actually experience the “click” was quite surreal.

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8 and Women’s History month, ALSF will feature interviews with some of our outstanding funded women researchers on the ALSF blog. You can follow along here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is Sullivan. 

by Jen Butler, Hero Mom 

My son Sullivan is a smart, kind, and strong 5th grader. 

Until November 2016, Sullivan's health was fine. Then, he was diagnosed with brain and spine cancer. As a parent, it was one of my biggest fears come true.

Sullivan bravely underwent multiple surgeries to partially remove the main tumor and release the pressure on his brain. Sullivan's tumor removal surgery resulted in Posterior Fossa Syndrome which affected his vision, speech and ability to walk. After months of excruciating radiation and high dose chemotherapy treatments, Sullivan's doctors could see no evidence of disease (NED). At the end of each phase of treatment, my husband Dan and I just hoped and prayed it worked. I remember the very odd feeling of relief that it was over, but at the same time, the anguish over wondering was it enough?

Today, Sullivan continues the long process of rehabilitation and adaptation to his new life as a cancer survivor. He has physical therapy three times per week to help regain his strength and balance. He has made miraculous strides in physical therapy, but the effects of the treatments are extremely damaging.

Sullivan has worked back up to being in school full time and has caught up, but due to the devastating effects of radiation and chemo, some accommodations have to be made to help him deal with challenges that he never struggled with before. Sullivan's short-term memory and mental focus are not what they were before cancer, but we had no choice, to save Sullivan’s life those treatments with all those side effects were necessary.

Sullivan is our son. We will always fight for his life.

In March, our family is joining ALSF for the inaugural Lemon Climb Houston and climbing the stairs to the top of Chase Tower, the tallest building in Texas. We will climb and we will fight so that our son and children just like him get the cures they need to survive and thrive.

There is no history of childhood cancer in our family. The causes for most pediatric cancers are not understood. It happened to Sullivan. It can happen to anyone.

Kids' cancers are different from adult cancers and childhood cancer research is extremely underfunded. Over 90% of pediatric cancer survivors live with lifelong health effects caused by treatments. Together, we can do something about it by raising money for cures that are more effective and less harmful.

Will you make a donation? Every dollar makes a difference for the thousands of infants, children, teens and young adults fighting childhood cancers.

When asked why pediatric cancer research is important, Sullivan said, “Cancer can take lives and can be very harmful to people. Research can find better cures for cancer that don’t involve so many meds that make you feel bad.”

Jen and Dan Butler are the parents to Sullivan, Cashel and Finn. The Butlers first discovered ALSF through resources given to them by Texas Children’s Hospital.  The Butlers benefited from support provided by the ALSF Travel for Care program and are excited to help more families going through similar experiences.  They will join family and friends for the inaugural ALSF Lemon Climb on March 24. You can join them, too! Registration and climb details are here.

Childhood cancer survivors like Tony, pictured above, have to be monitored for possible cardiac health side effects due to treatment.

Childhood cancer survivors are 7 times more likely to experience cardiac dysfunction at some point in their lives than other children. Harsh treatments from some types of high-dose chemotherapy and radiation therapy increase their risk of having an irregular heartbeat, weakening the heart muscle and even hardening of the arteries. 

This is one of the many reasons why childhood cancer research is so important—cures should not come at the cost of heart health. 

The good news: researchers are working every day to finder safer treatments that not only cure cancer but also leave children without devastating side effects. As science works towards this goal, here are 10 things you need to know about heart health and childhood cancer:

  1. Several types of treatment can put survivors at risk for cardiac dysfunction including a type of chemotherapy called anthracycline, radiation to the spine, torso or chest and high doses of a drug given in preparation for stem cell transplants. These therapies are used to treat a variety of cancers including leukemia, lymphoma, sarcomas, solid cell tumors and brain tumors. 
  2. Since the danger of long-term side effects increases with every dose and each treatment—oncologists will sometimes use another drug in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiation to protect the heart. 
  3. The younger the child is when treated, the more at risk for cardiac side effects. Children younger than 2 years old are at the highest risk.
  4. The damage caused by treatment can directly affect the heart muscle, leading to a condition called cardiomyopathy. Cardiomyopathy means the heart muscles cannot pump as well and if left untreated could lead to heart failure. 
  5. Radiation can cause a specific type of cardiomyopathy called restrictive cardiomyopathy—which means the heart muscle is not just weak, it is stiff and cannot adequately fill with blood. Radiation can also cause similar problems with the heart valves.
  6. Treatment for childhood cancer can put children at a higher risk of developing coronary artery disease, which leads to the hardening of the arteries that supply the heart.
  7. Children with cancer could be at risk of developing irregular heartbeats, called arrhythmia. 
  8. While the long-term cardiac side effects of some cancer therapies are well understood, the short-term side effects are not. Short-term side effects can affect children during treatment—causing delays and jeopardizing the effectiveness of therapy. 
  9. Even if childhood cancer survivors have no symptoms of cardiac damage, they need to be monitored annually to identify any potential changes that might indicate the onset of heart issues and affect normal life activities. 
  10. As more children are cured of cancer, researchers are continuing to study ways to give the right dose of therapies—enough to be effective at killing cancer; but not so much to cause short and long-term side effects.

Want to learn more about heart health and childhood cancer? Read our interview with Dr. Richard Alpenc, ALSF grantee and a member of our Scientific Advisory Board. Dr. Alpenc is studying the short-term side effects of cardiac dysfunction to understand what factors increase risks for children battling AML. Learn more here.

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