As a young girl in Chicago, Nirali Shah learned about childhood cancer and the work of pediatric oncologists while fundraising for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital through its Math-a-thon held at her school. This was work she knew she wanted to do when she grew up. With this sharp focus and finding a pediatric oncologist mentor in college, she made her way to work at St. Jude during her college summers.
Today, Nirali Shah, M.D., is the Clinical Head of Hematologic Malignancy within the Pediatric Oncology Branch at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The NCI is one of seventeen institutes at the National Institutes of Health, located in Bethesda, MD. Since joining the NCI in 2008 as a fellow, Dr. Shah has focused her research on treating patients with high risk leukemias and lymphomas and how to reduce risk of relapse following bone marrow transplant.
Pediatric Oncology is unfortunately a lesser funded area of cancer research, which makes it challenging for researchers to find grants to support their early work. The Children’s Cancer Foundation, Inc. (CCF) was founded on the belief that it is imperative to fund the research of newer researchers in this field, so that they establish themselves in the community, and can contribute to the pediatric oncology field long-term. In 2014, Dr. Shah received CCF’s Giant Food NextGen Award, which is one of the CCF annual research grants, sponsored by Giant Food. The NextGen Award supports a researcher early in his/her career.
Dr. Shah’s project proposal sought to identify what would optimize the outcome of a bone marrow transplant in a leukemia patient using immunotherapy. Her research focused specifically on those with multiple relapse/refractory disease– mainly children that would have their cancer respond to treatment, but then return repeatedly. Dr. Shah agreed that the NextGen Award not only made it possible to turn her proposal into a funded research project, it allowed for additional funds to hire a researcher to translate this work and help discover those connections that would increase the success rate of treatment for these patients. The findings of this project have directly informed the research she continues today.
As part of NIH, the NCI research engages in a “bench-to-bedside” approach – the idea that physically placing research lab work near patients participating in clinical trials fosters collaboration and improves outcomes. Dr. Shah sees this approach of lab work leading to clinical trial back to research applied to the next phase of clinical trial as “coming full circle.” She finds that it is incredibly informative to be involved in clinical trials as it allows her to meet patients and learn about the experience of the treatment from their perspective.
Dr. Shah and the department continue to research how CAR T-cell immunotherapy can improve the outcomes of bone marrow transplants. The first clinical trials using this method at NCI launched in 2012, where they discovered that the leukemia cells eventually stopped emitting a specific protein, making it impossible for the CAR T-cells to continue to identify and destroy the leukemia cells. The next stage of research proposed that the gene therapy could target a different protein. However, in the clinical trials, the leukemia cell eventually found a way to lose that protein as well. Therefore, Dr. Shah and her team are pursuing a method to have CAR T-cells identify both proteins simultaneously to keep the cancer cells recognizable for longer—delivering a more optimal response to treatment.
The Children’s Cancer Foundation, Inc. is proud to have supported Dr. Shah’s early research and look forward to hearing about her progress in this ongoing fight to end pediatric cancer.
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Dr. Shah participated in a panel on immunotherapy and discussed her research at the Washington Post’s “Chasing Cancer Summit” held in September of last year. To view that video:
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