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Physician-scientist Jason Shohet researches path to better childhood cancer therapies

Driven by patients and families, new division chief targets neuroblastoma stem cells for new therapies

Jason Shohet, MD, PhD, the Ali and John Pierce Chair of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, division chief of pediatric hematology and oncology, and associate professor of pediatrics, is focused on developing more effective and less toxic therapies for childhood cancers with a special focus on neuroblastoma. New to his role at UMass Medical School, Dr. Shohet is an accomplished physician-scientist who has contributed significantly to the understanding of the disease through his nearly 20 years of study as co-chair of the Neuroblastoma Research Program at Texas Children’s Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine.

Like his fellow pediatric oncologists, he describes the urgency with which he works.

“In the clinic we have children who have passed away and we have survivors,” Shohet said. “Over the years, you get very close with some of these families and it’s very motivational to see what they go through and to try to make their lives easier by developing better therapies that are less toxic.”

Neuroblastoma is a disease of the developing peripheral nervous system in young children and represents about 7 percent of all pediatric cancer cases. Shohet said the typical patient is less than 5 years old and the average age at diagnosis is about 18 months. It typically presents as an abdominal tumor, often near the kidneys and the adrenal gland.

“The primary cause of fatalities from this disease is relapse, so after the children have completed therapy or even while they are on therapy, their disease becomes resistant and it comes back,” Shohet said. “That’s thought to be driven by a subset of a cells in the cancer that have stem cell like properties. Working on that hypothesis, we have been able to identify a population that is very tumorigenic and appears to meet some of the criteria of cancer stem cells”

Shohet has been working on ways to target those neuroblastoma stem cells with new therapies.

“The ultimate goal of my lab is to cure every child with neuroblastoma, in terms of preventing the recurrence of this disease,” he said. “It’s an aspiration that we all have as pediatric oncologists.”

Learn more in this Expert’s Corner video.