Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Molecular Biology and Internal Medicine, UT Southwestern Medical Center. Attending Physician, Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, Children’s Medical Center
A recognized leader and innovator in pediatric germ cell research, Dr. James F. Amatruda is the head of the Germ Cell Tumor Biology Committee for the Children’s Oncology Group, a national organization that treats every pediatric patient in the Unites States affected by germ-cell tumors. Amatruda has earned recognition for his discovery of a gene mutation in zebrafish (small aquarium fish with human-like genes that allow scientists to identify triggers and observe how cancers grow and spread) that causes tumors in germ cells. Such tumors can be the source of testicular cancer, ovarian cancer and other pediatric tumors. The discovery of the gene mutation has been hailed as a significant breakthrough in pediatric cancer research because germ-cell tumors are unusual in their composition, and their understanding among the scientific community is still limited.
WHY HEALTH CARE: My father was a big influence. He was an old-fashioned doctor who was devoted to, and loved by, his patients. I have been interested in science since I was a boy. When I was in college, I volunteered at a local homeless shelter, accompanying people to the hospital for their appointments. That really opened my eyes to the power of medicine to relieve suffering.
YOUR WORK: I am a specialist in pediatric cancer. I divide my time between Children’s and my lab at UT Southwestern, where we are focused on developing better treatments for childhood cancers. We focus on two types of childhood cancers: germ-cell tumors of the ovary and testis, and Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer. We have a strong belief that the best way to improve our treatments is to really understand the “wiring diagram” of the tumor cells. What makes a cancer cell different from a normal cell? What are its weaknesses, and how can we exploit these to develop treatments that will kill the cancer cells but not harm the normal tissue?
PROUD MOMENT: What makes our work fairly unique is that we use the small aquarium fish, zebrafish, to model human cancer. Zebrafish develop the same types of cancers that humans do, but they are small, easy to maintain, and grow fast, so we can do large-scale experiments to look at thousands of genes that might affect cancer. Recently, we identified a gene family that, when defective, causes germ-cell tumors in the fish. With this clue, we have been looking at germ-cell tumors from kids and find that the same genes are altered. This is exciting because for the first time we can think about making better treatments for germ-cell tumors that are specific for the cancer cells.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Childhood cancer does not get the attention it deserves. Overall, cancers in kids are rare. This is a good thing of course, but it means that, compared with adult cancers, pediatric cancers get little attention or funding from grant agencies or the pharmaceutical industry. The rarity of the tumors also means that we have to work together with physicians and scientists from around the world to pool our results. We’re now working with the Children’s Oncology Group, a national organization of pediatric cancer specialists, to study a collection of several hundred cancer specimens from patients with germ-cell tumors.
SUPPORT TEAM: I’ve been extremely lucky to benefit from the generosity of the fantastic philanthropic community here in Dallas. Two organizations, The Children’s Cancer Fund and Wipe Out Kid’s Cancer, work tirelessly to support children’s cancer research. Work in my lab has been directly supported by the American Cancer Society, the Amon G. Carter Foundation and Kevin’s Ewing’s Sarcoma Fund.
ULTIMATE CAREER GOAL: There is a lot of reason for hope in childhood cancer. Overall, 75 percent of children diagnosed with cancer will be cured of their disease. But we will never rest until that number is 100%. We also know that our current treatments, even when effective, have far too many side effects, which can cause long-term problems. So we have to keep working to truly understand the causes of childhood cancer, and to develop treatments that are more effective and less toxic. I feel very fortunate to be in this field at such an exciting time, and I am continually inspired by the courage of the children and families I meet. To me, they are the real heroes in this story.