Childhood Cancer

A Famous Kid and A Pediatric Cancer Researcher Who Learned From Him – And What Those Lessons Might Mean for Future Pediatric Cancer Treatment

by St. Baldrick's Foundation
May 29, 2019

It was an inspirational story that was tough to miss: Tyler Trent, Purdue student and Boilermaker superfan, battling a cancer that would prove fatal, and doing so with grace, poise, and character that belied his 20 years. His story has been told during countless television pieces, and social media posts, and even a book. Behind the scenes, though, Tyler made a decision that could potentially mean life-saving treatment in years to come for others faced with aggressive cancers. He agreed to be treated by a team of professionals that would try a precision oncology approach, with genomics front and center, to test what could potentially work for others in the future. The medical team hoped to learn ways to minimize the long-term effects from a wide range of cancers for those who survive.

One member of the team that worked with Tyler, and got to know his family, too, was Dr. Jamie Renbarger, a six-time St. Baldrick’s Foundation shavee and Division Chief of hematology/oncology at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. During her nearly twenty years as a pediatric cancer doctor and researcher, Dr. Renbarger has learned a few things about genomics, about targeted, precision therapies – like those tried with Tyler – and about how research can lead to unexpected discoveries.

Dr. Jamie Renbarger is having her head shaved by a barber at a St. Baldrick's head-shaving event.
Dr. Jamie Renbarger has her head shaved at a St. Baldrick’s event.

Learning When All You Have Is Faint Hope

Dr. Renbarger first got into cancer research to try to answer a peculiar question. “I was really interested in understanding why two kids, who were basically the same age, had the same gender, same ethnicities, basically the same characteristics…how these two kids could both get the same cancer and have the same treatment, and one would end up as a kid responding to treatment, while the other would suffer horrible side effects.” The timing for her research was fortuitous: pharmacogenomics had just begun to take off, and Indiana University’s pediatric program was one of the best at using clinical pharmacology to try to answer the “similar kids, different results” question.

This led her to work to understand the genome, to effectively generate data about individual tumors and how people reacted to treatments. The timing of genomic therapy and the mapping of the genome allowed her to work with disease modeling, with investigation of individual molecular data models from patients taking her down a path that zeroed in on cancers like osteosarcoma.

While osteosarcoma – a cancer that targets the bones – is only found in 3 percent of pediatric cancer diagnoses, it’s the cancer that Tyler Trent eventually died from.

During his treatment, even when the outlook for Tyler was quite bleak, he was convinced that doctors could still learn from his cancer and how it responded to genomic therapy.

Tyler Starts College and Keeps Fighting

“He was really driven, a neat kid, and very goal-oriented: he made it clear that he had to start school at Purdue. There was no question that he would begin his Freshman year, and undergo treatment at the same time,” said Dr. Renbarger.

Tyler was committed to precision treatment – even when there was little chance of survival – because he knew that testing the body’s reaction to targeted therapies could possibly teach Dr. Renbarger and her colleagues about how the body reacts to treatments.

When Tyler’s osteosarcoma relapsed, he had also chosen to participate in the Indiana Pediatric Biobank to allow his tumors be studied more closely in the laboratory. Dr. Renbarger and her team have developed models and cell lines using tumor samples like Tyler’s to develop and evaluate novel treatment approaches to aggressive osteosarcoma.

Dr. Renbarger continued: “We’re also looking to see how to lower long-term impact of treatment for survivors of cancers, because some studies tell us as many as 95 percent of pediatric cancer survivors will have health issues when they become adults.”

Tyler’s mom, Kelly Trent, while still grieving the loss of her son, is committed to ensuring that his legacy is that of one who continues to teach us how to move forward in the face of a cancer diagnosis. “Tyler hoped that others could learn from his cancer, and that researchers like Dr. Jamie could study his cancer and maybe help other kids down the road.”

Why Dr. Renbarger Shaves Her Head for St. Baldrick’s

“For me, it’s about exposure and awareness of pediatric cancers. And, beyond any money that’s raised for research, shaving my head is a tangible thing I can do to show my commitment to patients and their families.”

People have their heads shaved at a St. Baldrick's head-shaving fundraising event.

Dr. Renbarger has appeared on television, online, and in newspapers with her shaved head showing the world that the work continues. “I’m really passionate about finding ways to improve outcomes for children, adolescents, and young adults with cancer, and I’m proud that I was able to work with a brave young man like Tyler during his time on Earth. I know we’ll continue to learn from him, and others like him, in ways that will help cancer survivors down the road.”

Editor’s Note

The Trent Family has published a book titled THE UPSET: Life (Sports), Death … and the Legacy We Leave in the Middle, The Tyler Trent Story. To purchase the book, visit tylertrentbook.com. By using the code STBALDRICKS, you’ll save 20% on the price of the book and 30% from each book sale will go to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

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