Childhood Cancer Awareness Month Feature:
Our Expert Advisory Councilor
At CureSearch, we set ourselves apart with the help of our world-class advisory councils. Among the many important things they do, one vital role is advising CureSearch on funding research with only the highest potential. Dr. Lee Helman is one of our expert advisory councilors who is part of the team working together towards children’s cancer cures. Learn more about Dr. Helman and why Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is important to him.
Tell us about your background in childhood cancer research and your leadership in the space.
I began my career in pediatric oncology in 1983 when I began my fellowship training at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). I was trained in internal medicine, and decided to spend six months doing pediatric oncology and six months doing medical oncology during my first year of fellowship training.
I was so impressed with the courage of the children I cared for that I decided that I wanted to study pediatric cancers in the laboratory so that I could contribute to better outcomes for these courageous patents. I started the next year in a laboratory studying neuroblastoma, and after five years of training in that laboratory, was given the opportunity to start my on laboratory studying pediatric sarcomas.
I have basically spent my entire career studying these tumors and have had the privilege of contributing to some progress in the treatment of these tumors. Over my thirty years at the NCI, I spent 10 years as chief of the Pediatric Oncology Branch, and then nine years as Scientific Directory for Clinical Research NCI, before moving in 2017 to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles as the Head of Basic and Translational Research in the Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases.
What big trends can we expect to see with childhood cancer research and treatments in the next five years?
I believe there will be at least two major themes that will emerge over the next five years in pediatric oncology. Firstly, based on the success of CAR-T cell therapy in pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), we will continue to see the evolution of immune-based therapies in the treatment of pediatric cancer. Secondly, we will see the emergence of “precision medicine” or “targeted therapy” in the treatment of more pediatric cancers. As we begin to generate a deeper understanding of the genomic landscape of individual tumors, we will see more studies aimed at targeting specific genetic abnormalities in specific patients. Finally, I hope we will see the development of combined immunotherapy/targeted therapy approaches in the treatment of children.
Tell us about someone who made an impact on your life, pushing you towards the childhood cancer field.
When I came to the NCI in 1983 to train as an oncologist, Dr. Phil Pizzo, who at the time was the Chief of the Pediatric Oncology Branch, offered me the opportunity to spend six months treating children with cancer, even though I was trained in internal medicine. I spent my first six months of fellowship in the pediatric oncology branch, working with children and young adults battling for their lives. I also worked closely with the senior physicians in the branch, and was convinced after six months that I wanted to spend the rest of my career taking care of these courageous children and working to find better treatments for these diseases. I give much of this credit to Dr. Pizzo, who taught me so much as was a role model.
What do you wish the general public knew about childhood cancer?
I hope that the public recognizes two major issues that we face in the field of pediatric cancer. First, most people understand that we have made incredible progress in curing more and more children diagnosed with pediatric cancer. But they often do not recognize that this cure comes with a cost. That cost is the side effects we often see in patients treated as young children. They often begin to develop long-term side effects of their treatment often twenty years or longer after they have been cured. These late effects include cardiac, pulmonary and kidney damage long after their curative treatment has occurred, as well as effects on fertility and worst of all an increased risk of second cancers. This is why we must continue to find better treatments today, to minimize the long-term effects that we will see 20 or more years from now.
Second, I wish everyone would understand that in spite of our great successes, these have not occurred across all pediatric tumor types. For example, pediatric brain tumors remain a highly lethal disease, as do certain types of sarcomas that I have spent my career treating and studying. We are just now beginning to see “the light at the end of the tunnel” in some of these difficult to treat tumors, and we need support for research now more than ever to bring more effective treatment to all children diagnosed today with cancer.
Why do you choose to support CureSearch and our mission?
I believe that CureSearch is dedicated to finding better outcomes for all children diagnosed with cancer, and that is why I support your mission.
Why is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month important to you?
Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is an opportunity for all of us to take stock in how much progress we have made in treating children with cancer, and how much more we have to do. And it allows those of us involved in working for children with cancer to thank everyone who has contributed to this progress and remind us all to keep pushing for better outcomes for all our kids.
Dr. Helman is a part of the CureSearch team working to find childhood cancer cures. Join our dedicated team of supporters, partners, industry leaders and researchers who are changing the face of childhood cancer! Consider getting involved with CureSearch – for example, we’re always looking for passionate people to host DIY Gold fundraisers!
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