Saro Armenian, D.O., M.P.H., is looking for answers.
The questions that compel him are relatively new to the fight against childhood cancer.
Inspired in part by a family tragedy, Armenian has made it his mission as a doctor and researcher to not only help patients defeat cancer, but also deliver them to a healthy life afterward.
"We've done a great job with cure rate. Our questions are beginning to focus on how to give patients the quality of life they deserve," said Armenian, assistant professor in the departments of Pediatrics
and Population Sciences
Today, improved treatments mean nearly four out of five pediatric patients will win their battle with cancer.
Many researchers still focus their efforts on that one remaining child who needs a cure. Armenian is part of a growing movement of scientists who look to reduce the toll that treatment takes on the other four in their adult lives.
He and his colleagues are trying to erase a great irony: The same treatments that defeat many childhood cancers later on can cause potentially deadly complications such as heart disease.
The researchers hope to create genetic tests to identify the children at highest risk for complications. They also want to create alternative treatment plans that cure pediatric patients while shielding them from health problems later on.
"When you see that a certain proportion of survivors develop complications that are in some cases more deadly than the primary disease itself, it's sobering," he said. "We make advances, but we make them at a cost."
His career was shaped in part by personal loss. When his sister faced leukemia as a child, Armenian — a teen at the time — served as her bone marrow donor. Her medical team helped fend off a recurrence, but ultimately she died as a result of complications from her transplant.
Through it all, Armenian witnessed how much the compassion of a doctor can mean to a family in crisis. He saw a goal worth pursuing.
"It's not just knowing what drugs to give. It's the human touch. Cancer is a harrowing experience for families. Most of them come out OK, and to be part of that journey is a privilege. I was drawn to that," he said.
Today, he is a physician-researcher.
As a pediatric oncologist, Armenian treats young leukemia and lymphoma patients. And as medical director of the
Childhood Cancer Survivorship
Program, he sees survivors of pediatric cancer who return to City of Hope for follow-up care.
His research and his time in the long-term survivorship clinic give him perspective about how to treat children today.
"My No. 1 priority is to give my patients the best cure rate possible, but when you have two drugs that show excellent cure rates, the next step is to think about the long-term issues. My research is always part of what I do," he said.
His work as a doctor also influences his research: Survivors at the clinic participate in his studies into the late effects of cancer and its treatment. And their challenges help inspire him.
"For some of our patients, the complications can be devastating. If we can prevent it for this future generation, if we can intervene and make their lives better, that's fantastic. That's what we're trying to do."