The sentiment dates back to the inception of Chen's career, during his residency in pediatrics. “I noticed how the whole family rallies around the child. It’s a wonderful side of human nature to see,” Chen says. Now, he recognizes it's more than simply heartwarming to witness.
Chen believes the ardent support families provide to their children who develop cancer partially explains the dramatically improved survival rates of these patients in recent decades. He notes that in spite of the challenging side effects brought on by the therapies used to eradicate cancer, most parents will do whatever it takes to ensure their children remain compliant with treatment regimens.
In spite of high patient compliance rates, Chen and his colleagues continuously work to find more benign therapies—those that ravage the cancer, not the rest of the body. This involves targeting cancer cells more directly while leaving the surrounding healthy cells unharmed. "We're trying to find better agents, use existing agents in better ways, and be more selective about which patients get the most intense therapies," Chen says.
Chen's primary area of research focuses on bone marrow transplantation (BMT), a highly complex and specialized aspect of pediatric oncology that, in recent years, has become an accepted form of therapy for an increasingly broad range of cancers. In addition to the myriad ways BMT is currently being utilized at Hopkins, Chen is working to refine novel approaches to the therapy and apply them to some of the toughest cases. "One hypothesis is that, in patients receiving a transplant using their own stored stem cells, we can induce an immunologic response from their own cells that mimics the graft received from a healthy donor," Chen says. "We're also excited about the ability to foster immune tolerance when the only available healthy donors aren't perfect matches for the patient."
In a quest to solve some of the rarest and most troubling treatment challenges facing pediatric oncology, Chen and fellow pediatric oncologists at Hopkins have joined forces with others around North America in the Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Consortium. "We're trying to develop multi-institutional studies to improve the effectiveness of BMT for cancer. The study we're working on now will help us to understand why some patients relapse in spite of BMT for acute myeloid leukemia," says Chen, who chairs the Oncology Strategy Group of this consortium.
Chen also immerses himself in several Hopkins-based initiatives. Recently, he was named Chair of the Oncology Clinical Research Review Committee, a group mandated to oversee all patient-oriented research in the comprehensive cancer center to ensure it meets the center's standards of scientific merit and priority.
He also chairs the Performance Improvement Committee. This multi-disciplinary group consists of physicians, nurses, and pharmacists who examine practical ways to reduce errors and improve patient outcomes. The committee recently joined forces with Hopkins' information technology professionals to apply a computerized order entry system—even to complex treatment protocols like chemotherapy.
"We've seen an amazing improvement; a number of potential medication errors decreased dramatically," Chen says. Currently, the committee is analyzing ways to reduce bloodstream infections in pediatric patients, which can create potentially life-threatening complications.
Despite the hectic pace of Chen's professional life, he has managed to find a way to leave behind the stress of his job and bond with his own children. He and his sons began taking Kung Fu classes when his older son began middle school. He's since grown up and left for college, but Chen continues the practice as both a student and a teacher.
Regardless of where Chen is, he's never too far removed from the challenges that await him at work. "Sometimes, in the wee hours of the morning, I suddenly realize why a complication has occurred," he says.