Swim Across America’s Long Island Sound Open Water Swim

May 3, 2022

The Division of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology, and Stem Cell Transplantation at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S) has been a beneficiary of Swim Across America’s Long Island Sound Open Water Swim for more than 20 years. This ongoing commitment is crucial in supporting transformative pediatric cancer research, ranging from illuminating mechanisms to identifying new targets for treatment. This year Swim Across America is supporting three investigators at Columbia – Drs. Robyn Gartrell, Jovana Pavisic, and Fred Wu – working together to find a cure for the most devastating childhood cancer, diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG).

Dr. Robyn Gartrell has been supported by Swim Across America since 2017, initially as a postdoctoral fellow at VP&S doing basic and translational research on how to maximize the effect of immunotherapy, using newer targeted agents which have become game changers in many adult cancers. Following the completion of her postdoctoral fellowship, Dr. Gartrell stayed at VP&S as Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Hematology, Oncology, and Stem Cell Transplantation.  

Ongoing funding from Swim Across America has been instrumental in launching Dr. Gartrell’s career as an independent investigator, helping her to establish her own laboratory focused on the immune microenvironment of the most difficult childhood tumors at baseline and following combination therapies. She is now applying this strategy to DIPG. By studying the spatial relationship of immune cells in the immediate tumor environment, Dr. Gartrell found that radiation therapy as used in DIPG can recruit immune cells possessing tumor killing capability. This finding is the cornerstone of a concept for a national clinical trial combining radiation and immunotherapy for DIPG.

Dr. Jovana Pavisic also works in Pediatric Oncology. She is using systems biology approaches to understand the complex make-up of these tumors and pinpoint activated master regulator gene read-outs. With funding from Swim Across America, she is working to validate candidate drugs which can offset tumor proliferation. She will work in collaboration with Dr. Gartrell to study combinations of these master regulators with immunotherapy and radiation.

Dr. Cheng-Chia (Fred) Wu is a radiation oncologist at VP&S whose research aims to improve drug delivery to brain tumors, including DIPG. The Wu lab applies a new treatment called focused ultrasound (FUS) to bypass the “blood-brain barrier” which normally limits penetration of oral and intravenous drugs into the brain and limits their effectiveness against brain tumors like DIPG. Basic research in his laboratory, funded by Swim Across America, is defining the optimal use and timing of focused ultrasound to achieve blood-brain barrier opening and facilitate drug uptake.

Funds from Swim Across America continue to transform pediatric cancer research at Columbia. Drs. Gartrell, Pavisic, and Wu are now combining their efforts in a three-pronged attack on DIPG. Together, they are responding to the urgent need for new approaches to this deadly tumor, with a goal of transforming the outcome for children living with DIPG.