By St. Baldrick’s Scholar, Satiro de Oliveira, MD
During a long holiday weekend, five-year-old Abe was admitted to the hospital after persistent nose bleeds, fever, and the appearance of small red or purple spots throughout his body caused by a rupture in the blood vessels. Though worried, Abe’s parents didn’t expect to hear the results of their son’s tests: Abe was diagnosed with leukemia, a type of childhood cancer.
Leukemia is cancer of the blood cells. It originates in the bone marrow, where blood cells are made. Normally, the bone marrow produces three types of blood cells, which all have their own essential functions: 1) The white blood cell helps the body fight infection, 2) The red blood cell carries oxygen throughout the body, 3) Platelets are the smallest type of blood cells. They prevent bleeding by helping the blood clot.
However, in patients with leukemia, the bone marrow produces a large amount of abnormal white blood cells that don’t have the same function as normal white blood cells. Called leukemia cells, they grow exponentially without end. As their growth advances, leukemia cells begin to outnumber the normal blood cells. This causes serious problems such as bleeding, infections and anemia.
Leukemia is the most common pediatric cancer, and even with many advances in treatment and drugs, there are still many children who do not respond to the standard therapies and are not cured. More research is needed to develop new therapeutic approaches for pediatric leukemia because patients with refractory or relapsed disease still have a survival rate of less than 50% with current therapies.
My research, directly funded by St. Baldrick’s, focuses on Leukemia Immunotherapy – using the patient’s own immune cells, armed to attack the leukemia cells. It may provide an important addition to current techniques and increase the numbers of patients achieving long-term disease-free survival.
Though I currently concentrate on studying leukemias, my research approach can also be used to treat lymphomas, another common pediatric cancer. The results from my research show that it is possible to modify blood stem cells to generate a patient’s own immune cells to target and destroy cancer. This study will provide support to allow progression of this concept to clinical trials, an approach that can be applied to treat any type of cancer.
After Abe’s diagnosis, we offered his parents a clinical trial to help him fight the disease. Throughout his therapy, Abe responded well, was able to go back to school and achieve even higher grades. He learned Spanish from me, and his parents learned English during his clinic visits. Today, Abe and his family help the new leukemia patients in the hospital. It really makes me happy to be able to share experiences and learn from my patients and their families.
When I started my research career few years ago, I knew that hard work would bring good results, but I did not know if I could accomplish the daunting task of curing cancer. During difficult times, I reminded myself I could not quit because people believed in my work. Today I can state I am a strong believer that together we will find the cure for all types of pediatric cancer, and I am very happy to have the support of the donors and volunteers of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
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Photo: Dr. Satiro de Oliveira in the lab.