Weaving Together a Cure for Cancer

Dr. Todd Cooper pauses to look at his pager. He smiles. It’s a call from a patient he’s known for years— she’s now in Mexico and getting ready to go to college. When he first started treating her, she was a little thing—maybe 6 or 7. And the prognosis was not good.

But years later, she’s beaten the odds—and for Cooper, she reminds him why he is so passionate about his job. Studying leukemia is a mission—not just a profession.

"It’s nice," he says, "It’s beautiful."

Cooper, an Atlanta native, focuses on innovative therapies for pediatric patients who are notoriously difficult to treat; an important part of the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorder Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. He is also a Renaissance man in a very modern medical world. Cooper, amiable and intellectual, weaves together all the scientific threads needed for a cure: the basic science researchers, clinical doctors, drug companies and the families who just love their children.

Why is that important? Because if everyone is on the same page, cures can reach the children who need them much faster. "It always starts with the kids," said Cooper, Director of the Innovative Therapy Program at the Aflac Cancer Center.

Cooper’s love of this mission started at MD Anderson, where he met his mentor, Dr. Sima Jeha (CQ), nationally known for treating relapsed leukemia. While there, Cooper learned two key lessons: He loved his work and he was able create Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials for pediatric oncology.

Phase I trials enroll small numbers of people (20 or more) who have advanced cancer that cannot be treated effectively with standard treatments or for which no standard treatment exists, according to the National Cancer Institute. Phase II trials are performed on larger groups (20‐300) and are designed to assess how well the drug works, as well as to continue safety assessments in a larger group of volunteers and patients. Phase II trials are often when the drug is discovered not to work as planned, or to have toxic effects.

After a three‐year stint there, the University of Alabama in Birmingham lured him to do a similar effort there. Again, Cooper—master of coordination—was able to start up a Phase 1 testing program. "I think the science of the disease intrigued me," he said. "There’s still the question of why certain types of leukemia are more difficult to treat—and why they come back."

That said, Cooper has also seen a lot of advances—most notably, that doctors and researchers are now able to predict with greater accuracy which cases of leukemia are easier to treat and which ones are harder to treat. And they know that the harder cases are "the ones who really help us understand new advances," he said.

Which leads to his current role at the Aflac Cancer Center of Children’s…

Scientists know that these difficult types of leukemia often "hide out in bone marrow"—which protects them from the killing effects of chemotherapy. But through a generous financial donation, the Aflac Cancer Center is now the lead institution studying a particular drug which appears to push those hidden cells into circulation—and that allows them to "be destroyed by chemotherapy."

Cooper has worked with the drug for three years. With the new funding, the center will work in cooperation with Pediatric Oncology Experimental Therapeutics Investigators Consortium (POETIC)— pulling in teams of researchers, doctors, the drug company and patients. POETIC promotes the early clinical development of promising therapies for the treatment of children, adolescents and young adults with cancer.

"This offers hope to patients and their families that we might be able to potentially help their child," Cooper said. "And it also places them at the forefront of a battle to help other children as well."

Bringing such a trial to Atlanta—or to any city—is no small feat. There are numerous challenges to convincing drug companies to permit such trials. After all, it involves children and malignancies, which could be a public relations risk. Financially, it’s also potentially bleak—since scientists are typically trying to treat a very narrow population.

And although there are government incentives to bring drugs to children, it is still difficult to get companies to play. But it’s Cooper’s job "to make sure they do." And this is just the beginning. Cooper is also hoping to work with a host of other drugs, delicately negotiating with pharmaceutical companies to allow the center to start other needed research.

Cooper, for example, is the principal investigator for the study of a drug which could be useful in treating children who have a specific mutation in their leukemia that leads to devastating outcomes. "Every time we’re successful, we can offer more options of care to our patients."

Cooper, father of three children, admits he now empathizes even more with parents than when he was younger. "I get it now," he said. "I get the pain and the worry that many of our parents face." But, he adds, "I also get how important this work is." And with that, he’s off to return a call—to a very special patient in Mexico.