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From patient to survivor: Madeline’s inspiration to study pediatric cancer

September 29, 2017
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In 2012, 14-year-old Madeline Lauener received a stem cell transplant from her sister as treatment for a rare type of blood cancer. Five years later, she’s at BC Children’s Hospital, taking part in research that aims to help kids diagnosed with cancer.

"I joined the Summer Student Research Program because I wanted to learn and be involved in the cancer research that takes place at BC Children’s,” says Madeline. “This is the hospital that treated me for cancer and changed me from patient to survivor.”

This past summer, Madeline worked with Dr. Kirk Schultz, an oncologist and Director of the Michael Cuccione Childhood Cancer Research Program at BC Children’s Hospital, investigating how a particular type of immune cell impacts the survival rate of stem cell transplant recipients. Called CD56 bright natural killer (NKreg) cells, this subgroup of white blood cells defends the body against tumours and viruses.

Stem cell transplants are often used to treat leukemia, the most commonly diagnosed childhood cancer in Canada. While this treatment helps replace damaged blood cells with healthy ones, it still comes with risks.

As found in an international study lead by BC Children’s Hospital, approximately 25 percent of children who receive a stem cell transplant will develop a major debilitating disease called chronic graft-versus-host-disease (cGvHD). This disease occurs when the transplanted stem cells mistake the recipient’s tissues as being foreign and attack the body. cGvHD can affect a wide-range of organ systems including the skin, gut, liver, lungs and heart. In severe cases, it can be fatal.

From previous studies, the Schultz lab found that patients with a high number of CD56 bright NKreg cells were less likely to be diagnosed with chronic graft-versus-host-disease after transplantation.

While working at BC Children's, Madeline studied different methods of growing CD56 bright NKreg cells in the lab. The goal of this research is to one day transfer these immune cells into patients to suppress the development of cGvHD.

“Although I was fortunate enough to not acquire acute or chronic GvHD, countless children and adults across the world are not as lucky,” says Madeline. “I witnessed many fellow patients who suffered from this disease, so I recognize the impact it has on a child’s life and well-being. This is why being involved in this research is extremely important to me, as we work to save and improve the lives of children.”

This fall, Madeline entered her second year at Simon Fraser University. She plans to return to BC Children’s next summer to continue her work in the Schultz lab, and in the future, attend medical school to specialize in pediatric oncology.

Read more about Madeline’s career goals, research and her experience as a patient in the Vancouver Sun article, “Patients remember hope and healing at B.C. Children's Hospital”.