Women scientists lead efforts to fight cancer

Vivienne Rebel, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of cellular and structural biology, and Gail Tomlinson, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics, are two women in science who play crucial roles at the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute. Dr. Rebel dedicates her time to research that could one day translate to new therapies, while Dr. Tomlinson cares for seriously ill children and seeks to translate research discoveries.

Dr. Tomlinson, who holds the Greehey Distinguished Chair in the Genetics of Cancer, is division chief of hematology-oncology. She also holds the Greehey Distinguished Chair for the Children’s Cancer Research Institute Director at the Greehey Institute where she serves as interim director. She sees hospitalized children and has a grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) to study pediatric liver cancer. This work is developing into a national and international clinical research trial.

Vivienne Rebel, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Rebel investigates the properties of stem cells in a bone marrow disease called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). “Stem cells are the only cells in the body that have a seemingly unlimited capacity to proliferate, just like cancer cells,” she said. “I thought that by studying stem cells, we may learn about cancer.” Dr. Rebel’s laboratory is using a mouse model to try to understand what is going wrong in the production of blood-forming stem cells that may eventually lead to MDS and, in some cases, to leukemia. “It is thought that the culprit cell of MDS is the blood-forming stem cell,” she said.

Dr. Tomlinson became intrigued by the molecular basis of cancer while a biochemistry student at Duke University. “I was interested in how some of the biochemical findings could influence the cure of pediatric diseases such as leukemia,” she said. “After I became more established, I focused my efforts on understanding genetic causes of pediatric tumors, all with a translational goal in mind to help guide therapies or understand causes so that, whenever possible, diseases could be prevented or detected early. Most pediatric cancers have historically not been thought to be preventable. It is a goal, albeit a long way out.”

Gail Tomlinson, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Tomlinson is principal investigator on a $2.7 million CPRIT grant to empower health-care providers to map out cancer risks of their patients and to share information about family history as an important factor. The grant, awarded in 2012, also supports screening services for people at high risk for cancer who may not have adequate access to screening.

Dr. Rebel admires women scientists such as Bettie Sue Masters, Ph.D., the Robert A. Welch Foundation Distinguished Chair in Chemistry at the Health Science Center. “Dr. Masters is amazing,” Dr. Rebel said. “She has faced the real difficulty of being from a generation when being a woman scientist wasn’t easy. Over time, there has been improvement.” Dr. Rebel also greatly respects Dr. Tomlinson for juggling both a clinic schedule and the institute. “I decided to stay with research and not go into the clinic,” she said.

As these two women apply their intellect, compassion and resources to understanding pediatric cancers, the children of Texas and the world are the beneficiaries.

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