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Interview with a Physician-Scientist

Dr. Michael Koldobskiy trained at Johns Hopkins Children's Center

What drew you to the field of pediatric hematology-oncology?

It has always been the field that felt right to me. I love taking care of children. When we are able to help, when we’ve cured a child of a potentially life-limiting illness, it is incredibly rewarding. When we’re faced with bad outcomes, it gives us that much more motivation to work harder on the research side. I’m inspired by my patients and their families every day, and would not want to do anything else. 

What does being a physician-scientist mean to you?

The goal of being a physician scientist, to me, is to be more than the sum of the parts. A physician-scientist should bring a unique perspective to research that is inspired by patient care and likewise should be a force in translating research advances into clinical practice.

How did you choose Johns Hopkins for your training?

I initially chose Johns Hopkins for my M.D./Ph.D. training out of college. It’s often the case that people who come to Hopkins for one phase of their training end up staying here longer; it is such a special place. I stayed here for pediatrics residency because of the tremendous emphasis on resident education and because of the breadth of training one gets here, at a hospital that is at once both the medical home for East Baltimore and a major national and international referral center. The residency program also took a major interest in accommodating my research interests and allowing me to integrate cancer research into my residency training. I also knew that I would want to stay for the Pediatric Hematology/Oncology fellowship run jointly between Hopkins and the National Cancer Institute at the NIH, because of the incredible clinical and research opportunities available here, and especially because I wanted the exposure to cutting-edge clinical research at the NIH.

Describe your current area of research and how you think this can improve the care of pediatric cancer patients.

I study ways in which cancer cells use “epigenetic” modifications, or chemical marks that modify the expression of genes without a change in the genetic sequence itself. This is of central importance to childhood cancers, which often have relatively few genetic mutations. I was able to join the lab of one of the leaders in the epigenetics field, Dr. Andy Feinberg. We’ve found that variability of epigenetic marks allows cancer cells flexibility in turning genes on and off and may account for resistance to therapy. Dissecting the mechanisms of this process in pediatric cancers will point to new targets for treatment.

Who do you consider your most important professional role models and why?

I’ve been very fortunate to work with some incredible scientists and physicians. One of my first research mentors in college, Dr. Craig Crews, developed a natural product in his laboratory into a now FDA-approved cancer drug, carfilzomib. My Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Sol Snyder, is a scientist of legendary stature in neuroscience and pharmacology, having discovered much of what we know about neurotransmitter receptors and signaling in the brain. His productivity and track record of innovation is just mind-boggling. My fellowship research mentor, Dr. Andy Feinberg, has been a pioneering force in the field of epigenomics and amazes me with his creativity. The director of Pediatric Oncology here, Dr. Don Small, to me epitomizes what it is to be a physician-scientist, leading basic research as well as its translation into clinical practice.

What current scientific innovation to you find most exciting?

I’m excited about recent advances in cell reprogramming, and the recognition of the similarities between this process and cancer.  Aside from the potential of this work in regenerative medicine, I believe it’s brought us much closer to understanding the derangements in cancer cells.

What’s your favorite thing to do in Baltimore when you aren’t curing cancer?

I have kids, and my wife is also a physician. We live in Howard County. One of my favorite things about Baltimore has been that, very close by, there are wonderful suburbs with great schools and beautiful parks and playgrounds, where we could actually afford to buy a home and start a family even during our medical training.

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