Girish Dhall, M.D., can quickly tick off the attributes of Children’s of Alabama’s Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Program that lured him from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to become division director for the Hematology, Oncology, and Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program as well head of the Neuro-Oncology program here. “It’s a very robust and academically active program in the country,” he said. “One of the strong points is that we have four neuro-oncologists, four pediatric neurosurgeons, two pediatric neuroradiologists and one pediatric neuropathologist. This is not available in most hospitals in the country.”
Indeed, the Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Program at Children’s of Alabama is one of the strongest in the country, treating between 50 and 70 newly diagnosed patients a year and participating in cutting-edge clinical trials for children with brain tumors.
In 2020, Dhall and his team will welcome their first neuro-oncology fellow. “So we will train the next generation of pediatric neuro-oncologists,” he said.
“There is such a need to have more people trained,” Dhall said. “Pediatric brain tumors are the most common cancer in children and we don’t have enough people trained to treat them.”
“Neuro-oncology is very specialized,” said pediatric neuro-oncologist Laura “Katie” Metrock, M.D., who will run the fellowship program. “The general hematology/oncology fellowship is more broad. This opportunity provides a full year of exposure to all aspects of neuro-oncology that are not available in the general fellowship.”
Metrock, who completed her own neuro-oncology fellowship at Emory University in Atlanta before coming to Children’s of Alabama, noted how much she appreciated her year of training. “I’m very excited to help others in that phase of their career,” she said. “If they choose to stay here then they will be helping kids in our community and if they go to other centers it provides more opportunity for collaboration.”
Metrock is also leading initiatives in neurofibromatosis (NF), which predisposes patients to nervous system tumors. “I took the position at Children’s of Alabama because I saw such a huge opportunity here,” she said. She is excited about working with the Neurofibromatosis Clinical Trials Consortium, which is based at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. The Consortium, directed by Bruce Korf, M.D., Ph.D., is a national leader in clinical and genetic studies on NF. “The ability to work directly in the front line of these trials coming through the Consortium was a huge opportunity,” Metrock said. “We have the opportunity to build something really special here for families and patients with NF.”
That includes a multidisciplinary clinic where children with NF-related cancers can obtain the variety of care they need from not only oncologists and hematologists, but geneticists, neurologists, endocrinologists and others. “We try to streamline their care and make sure they have access to other specialists, available therapies, and clinical trials,” Metrock said. That includes a partnership with the Pediatric Cancer Genetics Clinic. “We want to help the kids as they go through each phase and then ensure a smooth transition to the adult world,” Metrock said.
Among the other initiatives Dhall has begun is a global outreach in neuro-oncology. An oncologist from Vietnam recently trained in Alabama for two months and Dhall is now formalizing a relationship with the Children’s Cancer Hospital in Cairo, Egypt, which treats about 60 percent of the country’s entire pediatric cancer population. “We see about 150 pediatric cancer patients a year,” he said. “They see 4,000 a year. So the impact that we could have in helping train their doctors here is huge.”