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When deciding which field of medicine to enter, Dr Heather Symons contemplated where she could make the most difference—both in the lives of patients and in the advancement of science. It's no surprise, then, that she chose to pursue pediatric oncology. Although she is only in the early stages of her career, already it's clear that Dr. Symons is well on her way to accomplishing her professional goals.
In her first decade as a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Symons already has shown an impressive ability to juggle multiple research projects, in addition to caring for patients.
One of Dr. Symons' research pursuits focuses on using a novel immunotherapy approach to treating both solid tumors and hematologic (blood-borne) malignancies. The basis of her work stems from the theory that cancer patients' immune systems should recognize tumor cells as foreign and destroy them. This doesn't happen, theorizes Dr. Symons, because the immune system attacks only those cells it perceives as dangerous—not cancer cells, which it sees simply as foreign. That's where her research comes into play.
Evaluating an experimental therapy, Dr. Symons is pairing donor lymphocytes (white blood cells that activate the body's immune system) with chemotherapy to determine if this combination will "awaken" patients' immune systems to the danger of existing cancer cells and, in turn, elicit an immune response.
In a separate yet equally compelling research endeavor, Dr. Symons is working to increase the availability of donors for children whose cancer requires bone marrow transplants (BMTs) as a potentially lifesaving treatment. "It can be challenging to find a 'matched' donor," says Dr. Symons, who explains that only about 40 percent of patients who require a BMT find a matched donor. "Sometimes, we don't have the benefit of time, because remissions can be short-lived. But almost all patients have a half-matched donor: a parent, sibling, or child," adds Dr. Symons, who is examining ways to reduce BMT-related complications ordinarily associated with half-matched donors after ablative (high dose) chemotherapy.
"Like anything else that's new, it will take some time to prove that this is a feasible option that's safe," she says. But she's optimistic. "It has the potential to revolutionize BMT."
Dr. Symons knows it's worth the wait. "Seeing the research I do in the lab translate into clinical trials, then seeing patients in these trials survive long term, is incredibly rewarding," she says.