New Directions in Childhood Cancer Research at UW Health

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Sinisa Dovat, MD, UW Health pediatric oncologist discusses cancer researchMADISON – In a very basic sense, what makes cancer cells unique, when compared with healthy cells, is that they are immortal. But they still have an Achilles heel, so to speak.

Unlike healthy cells, which stop dividing after a certain point, cancer cells divide indefinitely. The key to turning them off is finding the mechanism that controls whether a cell continues to divide or stops.

As UW Health pediatric oncologist Sinisa Dovat, MD, (pictured above) works to find that key, he will be aided, as will scientists, researchers and physicians across UW Health, by the opening of the new Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research (WIMR).
The facility, which is still under construction but has opened several floors, brings together scientists and researchers across disciplines – microbiologists, biostatisticians, geneticists, and more – along with physicians who directly care for patients. Together, in an open space designed to foster collaboration and sharing of ideas, they will work to make significant advances in understanding and treating disease.

"It's an incredible space," commented Dr. Dovat, referring to WIMR. "Working in a shared lab will benefit everyone by providing greater access to resources, technology and other scientists."

The hope is that scientists and physicians working closely together will also mean a faster transition of the research into bedside care.

"One of the biggest bottlenecks in science right now is transitioning – advancing fundamental science to the clinical," observed Dr. Dovat. "And communication is a key element in that challenge."

The collaborative environment of WIMR will help foster greater communication and as Dr. Dovat noted, "It will open doors that we never thought of, sending us in new directions we didn't imagine."
The Challenge of Funding

An even greater challenge, however, is finding funding for the research. Over the last several years, federal funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for cancer research has decreased significantly.

"The loss of available NIH funding hit us severely," said Dr. Dovat. "Today, research that would have been easily funded six or seven years ago is not being funded."

As a result, funding from private foundations has become instrumental in supporting cancer research.

"The NIH has less available money and is tending towards funding less daring projects over the last ten years," commented Dr. Dovat. "It's been well publicized by NIH people, and in journals like Science and Nature. Many groundbreaking projects funded in the past would likely not have received funding today."

The MACC Fund, or Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer, has been instrumental in supporting research on childhood cancer, particularly at UW Health.

"We are blessed to have their support," Dr. Dovat said. "They have been the steadiest support we have."

The MACC Fund donated $3.5 million towards the construction of the pediatric hematology and oncology research floor in WIMR. In appreciation of their generous donation, the floor will be called the MACC Fund Childhood Cancer Research Wing.

"MACC is quite unique. They are a critical foundation supporting childhood cancer research," commented Dr. Dovat.
The Future of Research

Survival rates for childhood cancer are among the highest of the different forms of cancer. Over the last thirty years, survivorship has increased to 80 percent. And Dr. Dovat believes that in the future childhood cancer could actually be cured.

"If we apply what we have now, dig a little bit deeper, many good things will happen," he said.

Ongoing research will likely result in less toxic chemotherapy, more efficient treatments, and even individualized medicine. It will also result in a better understanding of the disease itself.

"Right now, we classify cancer cells based on seven or eight markers," Dr. Dovat explained. "Proteomics, or the study of proteins, will likely provide a much different classification of tumors as we understand their proteins and how active they are."

A better understanding of tumors will ultimately lead to the ability to tailor treatment to the cancer.

"Tumor A might respond better to one treatment, while Tumor B responds better to a different type of treatment," Dr. Dovat explained.

Research will also provide a deeper understanding of drugs and natural compounds, including identifying new potential compounds or finding new applications for existing ones.

"We can combine drugs more rationally if we know more about the mechanisms of how they work. So there will be advances in the ways we are using drugs and the drugs themselves," he added.

Even in the last five or six years there have been amazing advances in the fight against cancer. And while there has been a downward trend in support for cancer research by the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Dovat believes it will eventually be reversed.

"I came to this country purely to do cutting-edge research," concluded Dr. Dovat, who is from the former Yugoslavia. "The US has always been at the forefront of scientific advancements. We have an obligation to keep going. And we will continue to make tremendous advances."

Date Published: 07/08/2009

News tag(s):  pediatric cancerresearchchildren

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