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Research bridges two continents for oncologist turned researcher

Women’s History Month Feature: Ruth Tatevossian, MD, PhD, Pathology

Ruth Tatevossian, MD, PhD

Ruth Tatevossian, MD, PhD, joined St. Jude in 2010.

It may simply be chance that the flags of Wales and the United Kingdom hang along the route Ruth Tatevossian, MD, PhD, of St. Jude Pathology takes every day from her office to the lab. But perhaps there’s a deeper meaning for the native of Cardiff, Wales.

In the Danny Thomas Research Center, she strolls from her office past research labs and into a hallway that flanks an atrium. Six floors of labs rise to a glass ceiling. Dozens of flags hang in rows signifying the homelands of St. Jude employees.

The Union Jack hangs near the walkway. Two rows ahead, a red dragon stands with one foot raised on a green and white field—the Welsh flag. That flag hangs halfway between Tatevossian’s office and the lab where she and her team bridge the gap between science and medicine. The flag’s location is a dual reminder of home and of purpose.

Tatevossian trained and practiced as a pediatric oncologist in the U.K. before dedicating her career to research. She arrived at St. Jude in 2010. Nearly a decade later, she’s directing two labs: one examines new methods for finding biomarkers; the other serves as a shared resource for investigators.

St. Jude is world renowned, so I read publications from here while I was training,” Tatevossian said of her early days as a researcher. “Never in a million years did I imagine I would work here.”

A Research Journey

Tatevossian can’t pinpoint the exact moment science and medicine clicked for her. Her father was a dental physiology researcher who earned a PhD and a Fulbright scholarship researching the interface between tooth enamel and plaque.

“Occasionally, we would go see him in his lab, which was exciting,” Tatevossian said. “Oddly enough, the only career advice he gave me was to not go into research.”

At first, she took his advice, beginning medical school at age 18. In the U.K., medical students enroll straight from high school, compressing their studies into the first two years and undergoing clinical training for the last three. Tatevossian liked the idea of understanding disease and making a difference in patients’ lives. She trained as a pediatrician and specialized in cancer because of the opportunities to build relationships.

“I liked that you go through the journey with the patient and their family,” Tatevossian said. “Treating children with cancer is very complex. I liked the challenge of trying to understand the background of it all.”

During the last year of Tatevossian’s training, she moved to research full time after earning funding to complete a PhD at the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute. She continued as an on-call physician on nights and weekends for four more years.

In addition to her parents, Tatevossian credits her PhD supervisor Denise Sheer, a geneticist, with being a huge career influence.

“She encouraged me to try new things and question everything, to believe in myself and to listen to everyone,” Tatevossian said. “She taught me that everyone’s opinion is important, whether you’re the most junior student visiting from high school or the most eminent professor.”

Ruth Tatevossian, MD, PhD, stands near the Welsh flag

Tatevossian, a native of Wales, stands near the Welsh flag in the Danny Thomas Research Center.

Crossing the Bridge

At the London Research Institute Tatevossian collaborated with David Ellison, MD, PhD, before he left the U.K. to join the Pathology Department at St. Jude. Ellison’s lab provided tumors for her to study the molecular genetics of childhood brain tumors. When Ellison left for St. Jude, she continued the work and kept in touch with him.

After completing her PhD, Tatevossian contacted Ellison about the possibility of coming to St. Jude for a year as a visiting scientist. There, she found a work environment unlike any other place.

“We have unique opportunities at St. Jude because of our resources and our scientists who are willing to share their time and expertise. It’s a collaborative environment I haven’t experienced anywhere else,” Tatevossian said.

The research with Ellison revealed a fusion gene specific to a type of brain tumor. At St. Jude, Tatevossian began working with other experts to design a test based on that research. Within a year, clinicians were using the test to help diagnose disease. Other hospitals began sending tumor samples to St. Jude to see whether the test could be used for their patients. The test was rolled out to other institutions and has now become part of the new standard of care for diagnosis.

“I found it very powerful that in a short period of time something we’d found in the lab in London was being used as a diagnostic test and making a difference for patients at St. Jude,” Tatevossian said.

Bridging the Gap

A year later, Tatevossian was named technical director for neuropathology and solid tumor pathology, working to identify potential biomarkers for clinical use. Biomarkers are measurable indicators of the presence of disease. She continues to work with childhood brain tumors, as a member of the Ellison neuropathology research lab.

Tatevossian arrived at St. Jude just as the hospital and Washington University announced the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project. It was the first effort to understand the genetic changes that give rise to childhood cancer. She contributed to the first phase of results from the project, which yielded revolutionary discoveries in brain tumors and several other diseases. Some of those findings are now being used as clinical diagnostic tests. The knowledge gained from this project is changing how pediatric cancer patients are diagnosed and treated around the world.

In 2014, she became director of the Diagnostic Biomarker Shared Resource. This lab conducts biomarker analyses to support therapeutic trials run by St. Jude clinical investigators. Some days yield setbacks, but others offer groundbreaking progress.

“Translational medicine has become incredibly exciting. We are unlocking the molecular signatures of many different childhood brain tumors and discovering that these are entirely different from brain tumors in adults. These findings will impact many children and their families,” she said.

“Our work is making a difference in the way childhood brain tumors are diagnosed, classified and treated.”

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