Pediatric Cancer Researcher Talks Increasing Survival Rates, Decreased Funding

Mitchell S. Cairo, M.D.
‌New York Medical College
Chief, Pediatric Hematology, Oncology and Stem Cell Transplantation‌
Director, Children and Adolescent Cancer and Blood Diseases Center
Associate Chairman, Department of Pediatrics
Professor of Pediatrics, Medicine, Pathology, Microbiology & Immunology and Cell Biology & Anatomy

What is your area of research, and what discoveries have you made in your career?

I lead a combination of basic science, translational, and clinical research investigations in the areas of oncology, stem cell transplants, and hematology at New York Medical College and Westchester Medical Center.

The dozen studies we are conducting involve immunology, stem cell biology and other pathways to develop targeted treatments for various kinds of pediatric cancers. Our multidisciplinary approach works to bring new developments both from ‘bench to bedside’ and take observations from patients back to the lab. That’s how we’re able to better understand a disease and develop new treatments more quickly.

Over the years, I’ve pioneered the use of umbilical cord blood for stem cell transplants, developed a clinical antibody therapy for B-cell lymphoma, and advanced stem cell transplants for sickle cell disease.

What is the impact of this research?

When I started out in this field in the 1970s, the survival rate of children with cancer was 20 percent. There are approximately 15,000 cases of pediatric cancer per year in the U.S., and an estimated 175,000-200,000 cases worldwide. My research and the work of others has increased the survival rate to about 90 percent and my stem cell transplants for sickle cell cure up to 95 percent of patients.

What makes for a good research environment?

The culture of an academic research institution is crucial. It’s important to feel like the institution’s leadership and research offices are supportive and accommodating of investigators with novel ideas. It’s also important to provide opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration, whether that means between basic science and clinical researchers or across subject areas. It’s the reason I have appointments in so many different departments—that was a deliberate decision to facilitate cross-departmental collaboration. I’ve found NYMC to be an environment that is supportive, collaborative, and very conducive to doing research.

How is your research funded? And why is it important to fund basic science research?

The investigations in my lab are funded by a combination of public funds from NIH (National Institutes of Health), FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), and NYSTEM (New York Stem Cell Foundation) among others, and private foundations and pharmaceutical grants.

Over the years I’ve witnessed the shift towards less federal funding and more foundation funding, which has been a struggle for everybody. There are so many good researchers and a dearth of funds, which leads to many promising projects going unfunded. If money for research in this country somehow tripled, there still wouldn’t be enough. Funding is really the biggest problem for researchers. There’s nothing else that comes close. Without funding there is no research and no advancements.