From my earliest days on the wards as a medical student, I was struck by the courageousness of children and adolescents with cancer - and the inability of current medical practices to offer long term survival to such a large fraction.
Later, as a new pediatric hematology oncology fellow, I cared for a vibrant adolescent/young adult with rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of muscle cancer. In the space of one year, I attended both her engagement party and her funeral. This result repeated itself year after year for patients with the same disease.
I was sure someone would make a breakthrough, but in stepping back from the situation I realized that the lack of breakthroughs dated from 1972. If there were to be a change, I needed to be the catalyst for that change. With my love for research (as well as some luck in being in the right environment at the right time), I knew what my mission should be: Unravel the biology of these kinds of tumors and bring tangible, effective new treatments to the clinic.
Almost a decade after caring for that young woman with rhabdomyosarcoma, I find myself the inaugural leader of the Pediatric Cancer Biology Program at OHSU. Our program’s mission is to understand refractory childhood cancers.
In its first phase, our Program will address not only soft tissue and bone sarcomas, but also brain tumors and neuroblastoma. My own laboratory anchors the Program with study of rhabdomyosarcoma as well as medulloblastoma, the most common malignant childhood brain tumor of childhood. Using genetically modified mice and other tools, my laboratory’s research team seeks molecules in tumors that can be directly turned on or off by drugs, so that the tumor stops growing & spreading.
We pursue these goals with urgency and accountability, and importantly, through collaboration with colleagues in the physical sciences. Our belief is that new treatments should be made available in the next one to four years, rather than 25 to 50. Said simply, we hope to develop personalized, non-chemotherapy treatments for children with cancer.
Why Portland, and why now? OHSU is a fantastic place to be. I believe that in the next three to seven years that Brian Druker, M.D., Director, OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, will be increasingly recognized not only for developing a non-chemotherapy treatment for Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, but also as an international leader for personalized medicine.
I have seen how transformational this kind of recognition can be for an institution, and rest assured all the world’s eyes will soon turn to OHSU.
What they will find is something very special: a community of citizens and researchers working side by side building the infrastructure and creating the discoveries that pioneer personalized cancer care in the here and now.
Charles Keller, MD
Leader, Pediatric Cancer Biology Program
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