As a pediatric hematology and oncology fellow at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Patience Odeniyide cared for young patients with cancer, many of whom had solid tumors and received standard chemotherapy regimens. For some patients, the chemotherapy worked and they were cured, she says. Others were not as fortunate and they died, but not before enduring a great deal of pain. Odeniyide’s desire to ease that suffering and to find more effective treatments inspired her to be the first to pursue a new program at Johns Hopkins that allows fellows to complete their clinical training while simultaneously earning a Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Medicine.
The typical three-year fellowship already had trainees spending two years in research labs following an intense clinical year, explains Donald Small, director of the Division of Pediatric Oncology. But many already were adding on an extra research year. “We realized that if they spent a fourth, or in some cases, fifth year, they could come out with a Ph.D. at the same time.”
Odeniyide entered the program despite having no laboratory-based research background. She was introduced to pediatric oncologist and researcher Christine Pratilas, and was so inspired by her work that she joined Pratilas’ lab.
There, Odeniyide conducted laboratory-based translational research and contributed to the development of a clinical trial. The trial evaluated the ability of the anti-cancer drug tipifarnib — which has recently shown activity in other cancers — to produce responses in pediatric solid tumors containing mutations in the HRAS gene. In findings published in Oncogene, the team showed the drug could produce genotype-driven responses in tumor cells both in culture as well as in mouse models.
“The projects that we work on seem so relevant and practical,” says Odeniyide, who joined the faculty of the Children’s Center in July 2022 as an instructor, with appointments in oncology and pediatrics. In addition to seeing patients in clinic who have sarcomas and other solid cancers, she continues to do research.
Through the ongoing clinical trial, sponsored by the Children’s Oncology Group and Kura Oncology, Odeniyide and Pratilas have sequenced patients’ tumors, giving tipifarnib to some young patients who have rhabdomyosarcoma (a disease in which cancer cells form in muscle tissue) with mutations in the HRAS gene. These patients don’t do as well with other available therapies. Results are not yet available.
Meanwhile, Odeniyide is forging ahead, looking for ways to integrate tipifarnib with chemotherapy or other treatment regimens, she says, with the hope it can reduce some of the toxicities associated with some chemotherapies. Several families of her patients have expressed gratitude for her laboratory efforts, which, she says, inspire her bench-to-bedside pursuits.
“I didn’t know I was going to have such a long research experience,” Odeniyide says of the five years she spent in the fellowship and the Ph.D. program. “I’m really grateful, because I think it’s helped me become a better physician-scientist, and put me on a good path.”