Research wasn’t part of the plan. Rajeev Vibhakar, MD, PhD, MPH, director of the Children’s Hospital Colorado neuro-oncology program, left his native Tanzania for Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota with the intention of becoming a small-town pediatrician. He finished his undergraduate work, moved on to medical school at New York Medical College… and something changed.
Between his first and second years of med school, Vibhakar went to work in a biochemistry lab that was exploring how certain proteins bind to DNA. He was hooked.
“The process was so fascinating I asked my university if they would take me into their MD/PhD program and let me do research,” says Vibhakar. “I wanted to learn how things work and probably more importantly how much we don’t know about the human body, but I really didn’t know where I was going with it.”
A 4:00 a.m. emergency room visit from a 14 year-old girl during Vibhakar’s fourth year of medical school helped determine where he would go with his research and clinical career. She had bruises on her legs and attributed them to being kicked around during a soccer game the day before.
“She wanted help with pain control because she had a dance recital and she wanted to feel better,” says Vibhakar. “We looked at her and we said that is not from being kicked, that is something much more serious.”
The girl was diagnosed with leukemia later that morning. Vibhakar took care of her for the next six months and developed a relationship with the girl and her family. That relationship helped him decide to specialize in pediatric cancer. Similar experiences caring for kids during a pediatric residency at the University of Iowa cemented the decision.
“Several of the kids in the oncology unit had brain tumors and I realized we didn’t know that much about them,” he says. “We didn’t really understand what these brain tumors were doing. I decided that’s what I want to study because that’s where I can make a difference.”
Vibhakar explains that cancers in children are completely different than adult cancers – the treatments are different, the drugs are often different and the biology of the tumors is very different.
In 2009, after his residency and fellowship were complete, Vibhakar made the move to University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics. He is the director of pediatric neuro-oncology at Children’s Hospital Colorado, studying genetic mechanisms that turn brain cells into cancer and how genetic differences can help diagnose and treat children with brain tumors.
“I came here because of the ability to collaborate with people,” says Vibhakar. “Dr. Nick Foreman, the leading pediatric neuro-oncologist, developed a tumor bank in 1997. We have a lot samples and genetic data to study. That’s what attracted me initially.”
Here he has taken collaboration to a new level. In addition to studying pediatric brain cancer, Vibhakar is doing research with CU Cancer Center members studying leukemia – the proteins involved in that disease also are important in understanding brain tumors. Vibhakar also collaborates with CU breast cancer researcher, Dr. Heide Ford.
One of the genes Ford studies is important in regulating the way stem cells in the brain work. Another project with a biologist at CU Boulder looks at new chemical compounds to target tumor cells. And yet another with the Department of Pharmacology hopes to discover better drug targets in pediatric brain tumors.
Vibhakar wants therapies and outcomes in brain cancer to improve the way they have in leukemia.
“We’re still only curing 40 to 50 percent of children with brain tumors,” he says. “We really are between a rock and a hard place. Even the children that we do cure, often times we leave them with significant side effects. There is a long way to go.”
Yet he is optimistic breakthroughs are on the horizon.
“I truly believe that within my career, within the next 15 years, we really will have a significant change in not only how we treat kids but how we can impact their survival and how well they survive,” he says.