Disrupting Leukemia

Dr. Jessica Heath with patient

New, more effective approaches to treat children diagnosed with certain types of leukemia may be possible thanks to innovative research at University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and UVM Cancer Center, led by Jessica Heath, MD. 

“We’ve all had patients who, based on the data you have in front of you, should do well – but then they don’t. And why don’t they? That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” says Heath. That question motivated her to explore leukemia and why, for some pediatric patients, it was highly resistant to traditional chemotherapy. 

Getting Answers to Critical Questions

Heath found that some of these children – approximately 15 percent of those diagnosed with the aggressive, but curable T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia – have a particular genetic abnormality which changes the way leukemia cells interact with non-cancerous cells in the body. This usually results in rapid growth of the cancer. 

“We’re taking a look at some of those high-risk leukemias and trying to identify how those genetic changes cause those leukemias to be resistant to chemotherapy,” says Heath. “We’re really just beginning to learn all of the different ways that leukemia cells interact with and modify within the body.” 

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This discovery opened up Heath’s current avenue of study, and now she is hopeful that learning more about these interactions – and finding ways to disrupt cancer development – might enhance the effectiveness of cancer treatment. 

“It’s pretty crazy,” Heath admits. “We’ve made some nice progress, and we’re hoping to get results out in the next few months.” 

The approach is cutting-edge and this strategy has worked before. Heath recalls a similar line of research on a targeted leukemia therapy that resulted in a “wonder drug” called Gleevec that made the cover of Time magazine in 2001. 

Research Informed by Patient Care

Heath’s laboratory career has taken off as she begins her fifth year with UVM Children’s Hospital, but she stresses that she will never give up seeing patients. Heath currently spends 25 percent of her time with patients, and takes calls at the hospital one week a month. “I still have a great clinical practice that I really treasure,” she says. “I’ll never give that up. I love interacting with patients and getting to know them and their families, and being on this journey with them.” 

When asked to reflect upon the interaction between clinical work and laboratory research, Heath answers quickly: “It may not be the case that everything we do in the lab directly stems from a particular patient, but everything we do in the lab is aimed at ultimately improving their care for a better outcome.” 

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