Realizing Futures

Behind the Science: Q & A with Dr. Lingling Chen

Funding Lifesaving Research with Dr. Lingling Chen

We’d like you to meet Dr. Lingling Chen, Emerging Investigator Grant recipient from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. This type of grant is designed for emerging pediatric cancer researchers to pursue exciting research ideas and encourages and cultivates the best and brightest researchers of the future. Dr. Chen is tackling the the most common soft tissue tumor in childhood, Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS). Over the last 40 years, the treatment has been largely unchanged, consisting mainly of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Children who have high risk disease and fail front line treatment have extremely poor 5-year survival outcomes. New treatment options are desperately needed.

Dr. Chen is making progress towards these challenges through her research which is supported by the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation. She tells us more about her role in helping to ensure all children have a chance at a long, healthy future.

Why are you interested in finding a cure and/or better treatments for Rhabdomyosarcoma? My interest in Rhabdomyosarcomas come from treating and caring for children with this diagnosis. The current treatment for Rhabdomyosarcoma includes multiple toxic drugs, surgery and radiation. Children who are diagnosed with this cancer undergo multiple rounds of intensive chemotherapy exposing them to drugs that can harm their heart and also cause secondary cancers. Despite this, children with high risk or relapsed disease do poorly and jump from toxic drug to toxic drug, before ultimately succumbing to the disease. It is a terrible cancer and treatment has been unchanged for the past four decades. There is an urgent need to develop more effective and less toxic treatments for this group of patients.

Share your thoughts on why you think it’s important to fund pediatric cancer research.
Over the past 50 years, the progress of pediatric cancer research has positively influenced cancer research as a whole. Our success in treatment of childhood leukemias reflects the success of research collaboration across multiple institutions and serves as a model for clinical trials. Research from the Intergroup Rhabdomyosarcoma Study Group has allowed us to understand clinical features that predict prognosis in children with rhabdomyosarcoma, allowing us to better tailor therapy for different risk groups.

Pediatric cancer research benefits not only children, but all of cancer research. Federal funding, however, is much lower for pediatric cancer research compared with adult cancers. The majority of funding comes from philanthropic sources. Because of this, we need to raise awareness for pediatric cancers and fund research for this vulnerable group of patients. Only through scientific research can we move the field forward and develop new cures. 

What is your point of view on the climate of pediatric cancer research? We are in a very exciting time for pediatric cancer research. Cancer research as a whole has significantly progressed and led to many novel discoveries such as targeted drugs and immunotherapy. In the pediatric realm, we have taken advantage of this scientific progress as seen with the success of Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell therapies for childhood leukemia as well as antibody targeted therapy in neuroblastoma. Immunotherapy has become the fifth pillar of oncology and led to lasting responses in many adult cancers. My goal is to translate this success of immunotherapy to rhabdomyosarcoma patients by understanding how the immune system interacts with the tumor. This information can help us determine which combination of immunotherapy agents can lead to anti-tumor immunity and help us unleash the immune system to recognize cancer cells and attack.

Dr ChenHow has the support from PCRF allowed your research to be successful?
As a pediatric sarcoma researcher, funding is difficult to obtain as rhabdomyosarcomas, though common in children, is rare in the general population. Despite this, rhabdomyosarcoma strongly impacts many children and their families.

“PCRF’s support for my research validates the importance of rhabdomyosarcomas and has been key in allowing me to focus on my research.”

My project involves studying the tumor microenvironment of rhabdomyosarcomas in hopes of developing successful immunotherapy trials for children affected by this disease. Thus far, I have discovered an immunosuppressive niche in rhabdomyosarcomas that is predominated by myeloid cells. My hypothesis is these myeloid cells release chemokines and cytokines that restrain effector T-cell function and also promote tumor angiogenesis allowing for tumor growth. If we can target these myeloid cells, we may be able to disrupt the immunosuppressive niche and create a tumor microenvironment that can foster anti-tumor immunity leading to tumor regression. There is still much work to be done, but the funding and support provided by PCRF will allow me to continue this research and help us find better cures for pediatric rhabdomyosarcoma patients.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love to cook and consider myself a chef. Recently, I learned how to make a Spanish omelet, which is delicious but quite tricky (the flipping part requires some muscle). My goal, aside from finding better cures for pediatric cancer, would be to participate in a cooking competition like Top Chef.

Learn more about Dr. Lingling Chen, our impact and the future of curing childhood cancers.

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When you are young and healthy, it never occurs to you that in a single second your whole life could change. – Annette Funicello