On the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, where buildings with labs stand alongside buildings with clinics, Giles Robinson, MD, shares samples of tumor cells from his patients with Paul Northcott, PhD, who leads a lab that studies how those tumor cells behave at a molecular level and how patients respond to different therapies.
What Northcott finds about the differences within medulloblastoma helps inform how doctors like Robinson treat their patients. Their close collaboration has spawned new, more effective treatments for medulloblastoma, the most common malignant brain tumor in children.
It’s an example of what’s known at St. Jude as the “bench-to-bedside” model: how discoveries at a lab bench translate to better care for patients in beds.
Over the last decade, Northcott and Robinson have identified 13 subgroups of medulloblastoma, some that require less radiation and chemotherapy, while others more. Until these recent discoveries, doctors treating medulloblastoma had thought it was one disease requiring uniform treatment for the more than 400 children diagnosed with it each year in the United States.
“It turned a light on for me,” Robinson said. “On one hand it’s overwhelming, and on the other hand it’s fantastic because we can come up with multiple different treatments that suit these categories of medulloblastoma.”
Robinson and Northcott shared their discoveries and the benefits of collaboration at the St. Jude Partner Summit event, which hosted representatives of corporations that support St. Jude. The partners had a chance to listen to the doctors and also tour labs to learn more about the research that happens at the hospital.
Visitors explored parts of the recently constructed Inspiration4 Advanced Research Center, a 625,000-square-foot facility that features state-of-the-art equipment and technology in laboratories for the research of Developmental Neurobiology, Immunology and Cellular and Molecular Biology.
“I saw the tailored uniqueness that labs have in the tools and equipment they use for researchers to study and categorize these cancer cells to not only understand them, but to take steps to help eradicate childhood cancer forever,” said Ben Ahern, Charity Account Manager for AmazonSmile, which has donated more than $14.2 million to St. Jude since the partnership began in 2014.
Scientists showed visitors how small dishes that fit in the palms of hands contained tumor cells for various cancers to be studied for their features, strengths and vulnerabilities to devise treatment and cures.
In one dish, cells of a cancer that affects the muscles and soft tissue, called "rhabdomyosarcoma," float like harmless specks of dust. When allowed to flourish over a week in conditions similar to the human muscle, images from the microscope show the cells grow, no longer spheres but a dense mesh spreading and filling the plate. The solid tumor lab is focused on learning how these cancers grow and spread and what it takes to stop them.
The lab also tracks elusive cancer cells that survive treatment in some patients. These rogue cells, few in number, remain hidden sometimes for years but then unexpectedly mount a resurgence causing difficult-to-treat relapses. St. Jude scientists are working with doctors to improve survival rates for recurrent cases — rates that have been largely stagnant for more than two decades.
“Having first-hand visibility into the labs was eye-opening to understand the amount of time, technology and resources needed to detect and understand the impact of one genetic cell in a billion that can impact a child's life,” said Carmen Murillo, Senior Director of Marketing for Melting Pot Restaurants, which has raised over $14 million for St. Jude since its partnership began in 2003. “As tedious as the research may be, it is the most important, groundbreaking work.”
The work in his brain tumor lab is “very challenging,” Northcott admitted, and the answers he and his fellow scientists seek lead to more dead ends than discoveries.
“It’s a 90 percent failure rate, maybe 95 percent,” Northcott said. “But I’m driven by the fascination and curiosity and possibility for discovery. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”
Jill Maness, Manager, Community Relations for AutoZone, which has raised more than $51 million since its partnership with St. Jude began in 2006, called the work the doctors, researchers and entire staff do every day at St. Jude "nothing short of remarkable."
"I can’t imagine the gambit of emotional strain parents face upon learning that their child has been diagnosed with cancer or any life-threatening disease," Maness said. "St. Jude does everything possible to make sure that children have the most successful outcomes and that families are comforted and alleviated of as much stress as possible."