“It’s only through research…”

Veteran V Foundation Researcher Dr. Wechsler Shares His Work and Hopes for Pediatric Cancer Research

Dan Wechsler, M.D., Ph.D., Director of Pediatric Oncology at Aflac Cancer & Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Professor of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, had a passion for interest in cancer research that started when he was in college.

He was an undergraduate student at Harvard working in an immunology lab. His interest in research and cancer continued to grow, studying trypanosomiasis as a Ph.D. candidate and doing his postdoctoral training in pediatric hematology and oncology at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

But what eventually drew him to his current field of focus of pediatric leukemia was one patient. In the early 2000s, Dr. Wechsler was taking care of an infant patient with leukemia. Unfortunately, infant leukemia can be very aggressive, and she died about 10 days after she first presented to the clinic. Prior to her passing, Dr. Wechsler and his team were able to analyze some of her leukemia cells. In that moment, what they found would influence their careers moving forward.

“We identified a new genetic change, a translocation that had never been described before,” Dr. Wechsler said. “That observation has led to the studies that we’ve been working on and continue to work on today – to understand leukemias in infants and children and to try to develop new therapies.”

Because of this novel research, Dr. Wechsler and his team now know more about pediatric leukemia than they have in the past, specifically infant leukemia. They’ve been able to identify differences in leukemia in infants compared to adolescents and adults. This has led to new ideas and novel treatment approaches.

Pediatric cancer continues to be one of our society’s biggest foes, impacting an incredibly vulnerable population. Unfortunately, minimal federal funding is directed to pediatric cancer research, meaning organizations like the V Foundation are crucial in helping to support investigators who are focused on childhood cancer. Understanding what causes pediatric cancers is challenging, leading many researchers, like Dr. Wechsler, to delve deeply into understanding the biology of these cancers.

“In the U.S., there are around 1.7 million new diagnoses of cancer. In pediatric patients, that number is only about 15,000-16,000. It is a small number, relatively speaking, but for the patients and families who are affected by it, it’s 100%.

“We really need to do more to understand and then develop new treatments to help cure these patients. Anything we can do to lessen the burden on these patients and their families is going to be really critical.”

Dr. Wechsler is thankful for the V Foundation’s continued investment throughout his career. He’s received four pediatric-focused grants in his career from the V Foundation, beginning in 2012. Now, he’s a veteran researcher in the field and enjoys leading and mentoring the next generation of cancer researchers. He also serves as a pediatric grant reviewer for the V Foundation, helping identify the best pediatric-focused projects for the V Foundation to fund in the future.

“The V Foundation has been committed to supporting pediatric cancer research for many years. There are new initiatives now that are even larger in their efforts to combat pediatric cancer. I’m proud to be associated with grant reviews of pediatric cancer research supported by the V Foundation.”

One area of needed growth in pediatric cancer research that Dr. Wechsler sees is survivorship. With approximately 80% of childhood cancer patients surviving, we are now learning that many treatments have long-lasting effects, particularly in growing pediatric patients. New treatment options are continually being developed to provide gentler therapies with fewer long-term effects. Progress has been made, but there is still much more to be done.

“We’ve been able to cure many patients with cancer, but unfortunately many of these patients end up with significant long-term side effects from their treatments – these include second malignancies, problems with their hearts, or difficulties in learning or growth. There’s a multitude of late effects as a result of the treatments that we give.”

“Victory Over Cancer is not just curing patients, but preventing and addressing the long-term side effects that patients get as well.”

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