It’s only been a year since Girish Dhall, M.D., 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 to become division director for the Pediatric Hematology, Oncology, and Blood and Marrow Transplantation program at Children’s of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Yet he’s already made significant progress on one of his key goals: offering more potentially life-saving clinical trials to patients.
“We’re trying to increase our research portfolio through multiple mechanisms,” he said. Children’s already belongs to the largest pediatric cancer research organization in the world, the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), an international consortium of more than 200 children’s hospitals, universities, and cancer centers. Children’s of Alabama and UAB participate in the COG Phase I Consortium, the Neurofibromatosis Consortium and the Next Consortium, all of which conduct cutting-edge clinical trials for pediatric patients with nervous system tumors.
While COG is a major force in pediatric oncology, the number of trials it offers is limited. With about 150 new cancer patients a year seen at Children’s of Alabama, Dhall said, more opportunities are needed. “Even though we’ve come from a survival rate of zero 50 or 60 years ago to nearly 70 percent, 30 percent of patients still relapse,” he said.
Thus, Children’s of Alabama and UAB joined the Sunshine Project, which is a part of the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation. It emphasizes basic and translational research in the areas of bone and soft tissue sarcoma and brain tumor immunology, Dhall said. In addition, Children’s of Alabama and UAB are joining the ReMission Alliance Against Brain Tumors (RAABT), a University of Florida-led network of neuro-oncology, tumor immunology and genetics experts from top peer institutions as well as a community of vested collaborators and influencers affected by brain cancer.
To manage the expected growth in clinical trials, Dhall is also reorganizing the department’s clinical trial infrastructure to improve efficiency and recruiting additional staff to prepare for the anticipated increase. He also wants to add other scientists who can build on the department’s portfolio not just in brain tumors, but also in sickle cell disease and leukemia. “That’s my hope for the next year,” he said.
He predicts that the number of clinical trials, today at about 10, will double within the next two years.
“Patients who relapse after front-line therapy have a very poor prognosis with poor survival,” Dhall said. “So, for us to be able to offer treatment options here means they don’t have to travel to other sites like Atlanta or Memphis, which is a huge disruption for patients at the end of life.”
“As a physician,” he said, “this gives me hope and it keeps me going.”