2005 - “Medical science has made important strides in fighting cancers in children, but we are now at an important juncture,” says Todd R. Golub, M.D., a respected young pediatric oncologist whose career got a jump start through a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences.
The death rate from childhood cancers declined steadily during the later decades of the past century. Success came mainly through more intensive use of established drugs developed originally for adult cancers. Since 1998, however, the death rate has remained virtually unchanged.
“This means simply using today’s drugs isn’t enough,” Dr. Golub says. “We now need to find new drugs that once again will help to drive down the mortality rate from childhood cancers.”
This is the challenge Dr. Golub faces every day. He is director of the cancer program at the Broad (rhymes with “code”) Institute, a research collaboration of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. He also is an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
On a larger stage, Dr. Golub joined recently with other researchers from across the country at a think tank-style meeting to explore innovative ways to bring the federal government, academia, and industry together to catalyze advances in treating childhood cancers. Held in May 2005, the Childhood Cancer Targeted Therapeutics Workshop was sponsored jointly by the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.
“One major challenge with childhood cancers is that they are rare in comparison with most adult cancers,” Dr. Golub says. “That’s good, of course—but it also poses a problem. Because of the relatively small total number of children affected, pharmaceutical companies do not find it economically feasible to develop large research programs focused on childhood cancers. So, practically speaking, one way that progress is likely to be made will be through the ‘opportunistic’ use of new drugs that are developed for other cancers, or even noncancerous diseases, in adults.
“Well, that sounds fine,” he continues. “But the question is, how do you know which of those drugs developed for other purposes might also work in specific childhood cancers? A good deal of the discussion at the workshop centered on the possibility that better defining the molecular characteristics of childhood cancers might provide a roadmap to help indicate which adult drugs to test in which pediatric patients.”
Deciphering the molecular mysteries of cancer is right up the collective alley of Dr. Golub and his colleagues.
“Our laboratory focuses on the genetic basis of cancer, with particular emphasis on the use of new genomics and computer science approaches to cancer diagnosis and treatment planning,” he says. “The lab has played a leading role in exploring the use of DNA microarrays, or ‘DNA chips,’ for cancer diagnosis, and we are extending these techniques to gain insight into the molecular basis of human cancer. Part of this effort involves the integration of computer science experts into the research group to extract clinically meaningful patterns from complex genetic information within tumors. We also are extending these genomic approaches to the screening of new drugs as cancer therapies.”
Dr. Golub received his BWF award in 1995. Looking back, he says, the award helped shaped his career.
“The award provided funds at a critical juncture in the transition to becoming an independent faculty member—a time when there are persistent pressures to take the scientifically safe road as the surest way to win future research support,” he says. “Having the significant financial support from BWF provided me with some breathing room to be able to take on what I believed were important, but riskier, projects.
“The award is valuable in other ways as well,” he says. “Having the external validation of the Fund and its respected scientific advisers certainly makes people pay attention with respect to faculty recruiting. A young researcher who can bring some funding to a new position is attractive to university recruiters. The award also serves as another piece of evidence that you actually do have some good scientific ideas.”