In January, Girish Dhall, M.D. was named division director for the Hematology, Oncology, and Blood & Marrow Transplantation program in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Pediatrics and Children’s of Alabama. In May, he and his wife moved from Los Angeles, where he was an associate professor of pediatrics and director of the Neuro-oncology Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, to Birmingham.
We talked to Dr. Dhall about his vision for the department and the transition to Alabama.
Q: What brought you to Children’s UAB?
A: What brought me here was the quality of the program at Children’s Hospital and UAB and the people here. I was looking for a new challenge and this program was looking for a leader who could help build and elevate the program. When I came here, I was really impressed by the high caliber of the people here, not just in the clinic but also in the research arena, as well as the existing infrastructure at Children’s and UAB, which made my decision quite easy.
Q: What do you mean by infrastructure?
A: The ability to conduct clinical trials and research is very solid on the UAB side, and the clinical care is very strong on the Children’s side. Plus, there are so many subspecialists you don’t have to send patients out of the hospital, which makes treating patients with chronic conditions like cancer much easier.
Q: What’s your top priority for the division of heme-oncology as its new leader?
A: My biggest priority is to build a well-rounded program — a program that is not only strong in its clinical mission, which is to provide the best treatment possible for children with cancer and blood diseases, but one that also has a strong research base, which includes clinical, basic, and translational research.
We already have a strong clinical program with top-notch faculty providing outstanding care to our patients as well as a strong clinical and translational research programs in the area of brain tumors, sickle cell disease, and survivorship. I hope to build on the existing strengths of the program and add clinical and translational research programs in leukemia and sarcomas. Eventually, my hope is that these efforts will lead to providing more cutting-edge therapies for children with cancer and blood disorders in the state of Alabama and the surrounding area for decades to come.
Q: Where do you see the fight against cancer in 10 years?
A: Over the last five decades, we have made significant strides in our fight against cancer. We are now able to cure approximately 80% of all childhood cancer patients compared to 10% in in the 1960s. However, the therapies we use, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy, sometimes have lasting side effects on our patients, especially young children.
In the last decade or so, there has been an explosion of scientific techniques that have helped us understand the biology of these cancers and what makes them grow. In the next 10 years, I hope that we will have a shift in designing treatments that are directed specifically at the cancer cells and genetic derangements within them and spare normal organs and tissues, i.e., provide therapies that are more effective and less toxic.
Q: You chair the Young Investigator’s Committee for Children’s Oncology Group. What advice do you have for young researchers?
A: Research can be extremely, extremely frustrating in the sense that it takes a long time to complete and obtaining funding is a huge challenge because it’s extremely competitive. So my advice is don’t give up.
Q: What are you most excited about regarding living in Birmingham?
A: We’re having a great time. We go on a walk with our dog in the evening and we do less walking and more talking with the neighbors. We love the people and their Southern hospitality, the bar-b-que, the blue skies and less traffic.
Q: And the summer heat?
A: Everyone told us July and August would be a killer, but it hasn’t been that bad.
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