The survival rate among children with acute myeloid leukemia (a very aggressive form of the blood cancer) is around 50 percent. Drs. Marie Bleakley and Soheil Meshinchi of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center hope to help kids beat those odds. Their groundbreaking research on immunotherapy and genome mapping, respectively, could mark a giant leap forward in pediatric cancer treatment.
Marie Bleakley: My grandfather was a family physician, and I always knew I wanted to be a doctor. My passion for pediatric oncology—leukemia in particular—came later. I did some really world-class research training and completed my first fellowship in Australia.
Soheil Meshinchi: My family immigrated to the U.S. in 1978 during the Iranian revolution. There was a significant concern about persecution of religious minorities. So we started a new life in Southern Michigan. My initial interest was actually engineering, but I fell in love with medical research.
Getting to Seattle
MB: I came to the states, to Fred Hutch and Seattle Children’s, to do a second fellowship. My husband thought we were staying for a couple of years. He’s still happily putting up with the situation.
SM: I saw Fred Hutch as one of the world leaders in blood cancer [research]. It’s one of the very few places where the resources both intellectual and physical are available to do some very innovative research.
For the Kids
MB: I was really inspired by the children and their families. You develop long-term relationships with them, because leukemia does take a long time to treat.
SM: Pediatric oncology is actually a very optimistic and hopeful field because the cure rates are much better than adult cancers. This is where I want to spend my research career.
MB: There’s been a boom in immunotherapies. It’s gone from being an academic, radical, boutique field, to being a really booming area of medicine. Governmental leadership at the highest levels is interested in serious funding of this area.
SM: In the last five years or so the technology has changed so much. We’ve been able to sequence thousands of genes in a much faster fashion and identify genetic changes that would have been impossible to detect otherwise. It’s one of the most exciting things to happen to medicine in my lifetime.
MB: Cancer, including leukemia, is enormously complicated. It’s highly evasive and evolves. But we now have much better tools to “interrogate” it efficiently on a molecular level. We can basically understand its vulnerabilities.
SM: The most exciting part of identifying these cancer-associated mutations is how we can use them to treat patients. [We] have figured out how to use these mutations as targets and design immune treatments. My job is to identify and paint that target. Dr. Bleakley is the missile.