He's not one to shy away from complex challenges. In fact, he thrives on them. Ask him what steered him to the field of pediatric oncology, which contains some of the most opaque medical mysteries of any specialty, and where patients span several distinct age groups and therefore possess varying needs and responses to therapy, and he’ll tell you: “I like the complexity.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Dr. Cohen specializes in neuro-oncology, one of the most baffling and stubborn of all areas of pediatric oncology. As the director of Pediatric Neuro-Oncology, Dr. Cohen involves himself with almost all pediatric patients at the Kimmel Center who presents with either a brain or a spinal cord tumor. In the laboratory, he focuses his energies on developing and testing new drugs to combat the most aggressive brain tumors, including diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma—a particularly stubborn and aggressive tumor that almost never responds to currently available treatments.
"We have proven that standard chemotherapy and radiation don't work. We're looking at different mechanisms of delivering treatments to the brain, as well as new agents. The current focus these days is on molecularly targeted therapies—which proteins are elevated, what pathways are turned on that shouldn't be. But nothing is going to be a cure-all," he says.
Though he acknowledges that the path to better treatments for these rare brain cancers isn't straight or certain, Dr. Cohen refuses to get discouraged. "There are some cancer diagnoses for which, twenty or thirty years ago, the cure rate was only 20 percent, and now it's 80 percent," he says.
This mixture of candor and optimism serves Dr. Cohen well in his positions of leadership. For the past thirteen years, he has served as the director of the Johns Hopkins University/National Cancer Institute joint fellowship training program in pediatric hematology/oncology, the largest training program of its kind in the nation. He is also chief medical officer of the nonprofit Solving Kids Cancer, a foundation that funds pediatric oncology research initiatives. With a substantial grant through the foundation, Dr. Cohen is seeking to speed the clinical trial process involving pediatric oncology therapies, ultimately bringing novel therapies to children much more rapidly.
“Kids with brain tumors are often last on the list for testing new therapies. Their parents, well aware of the limited options available to their children, are willing to accept risks that come with experimental therapies," Dr. Cohen says.
Battling on behalf of children who face a race against time can be exhausting, especially when coupled with the demands of an already intense schedule that includes patient care and research. Wisely, Dr. Cohen recognizes that recharging is imperative to maintaining his breakneck professional pace.
"I want to give 110 percent of myself at work. So I'm conscious of striking a balance when I'm not at work," says Dr. Cohen, who on occasion retreats to a weekend home in the mountains of West Virginia, where he can't be reached by cell phone.