Lia Gore gives kids and adults with cancer one more chance against all odds

Lia Gore’s life has been about borrowed time.

Lia Gore MDBefore Gore was born, her mother beat breast cancer. “Everything I do feels like the bonus round,” says the pediatric oncologist and head of the Children’s Hospital Colorado Experimental Therapeutics Program.

That feeling of extra time, she says, drives her work in finding the next best treatment for every patient she meets. “I love the fact that there are kids alive today who had the odds against them. And of all those kids who ultimately didn’t survive, a lot of them lived with very high quality for longer than anyone expected. We’re not just conducting research for the greater good, but for the very realistic chance that children can benefit from research going on today.”

Gore, a CU Cancer Center investigator, knew at the age of 12 that she wanted to take care of kids with cancer, and she pursued the dream, landing at Children’s and the University of Colorado School of Medicine for her pediatric residency in 1996 and stayed for her pediatric oncology training. In 2001 her post-doctoral research training was over, and she didn’t know what to do next.

“I needed a job, and I wanted to stay in Denver,” she recalls. “I had two very good mentors who said, ‘Let’s think about what’s missing here. You’re not afraid of people who are really sick, and you have a good research mind.’”

That missing piece: an early clinical trials program for kids with cancer. In fact, at the time kids with the types of cancers most common to the age group—leukemia and brain tumors—were excluded from clinical trials.

One mentor, pediatric oncologist Steve Hunger, MD, suggested Gore apply for a training grant from the National Institutes of Health called the Paul Calabresi Fellowship, a prestigious training program that teaches clinicians how to conduct basic and translational research. Gore got that training grant, and also a mini-fellowship in drug development at the National Institutes of Health.

She used the first year of her Calabresi funding—and critical protected time away from the clinic—to create a business plan for what would become the Children’s Experimental Therapeutics Program. Then she sold the idea to Children’s leadership. “It’s a very expensive enterprise that Children’s supported well,” she says.

In a few, short years the program would become one of the most prestigious phase I pediatric clinical trials programs in the country, leading the way to allow children with leukemia and brain tumors to participate.

In 1999 the CU medical school had recruited a clinical trials expert—colon cancer physician and drug development guru Gail Eckhardt, MD. Gore reached out to Eckhardt, who was building a phase I clinical trials program at University of Colorado Hospital. In August 2001, she started working in the adult phase I clinic with Eckhardt, “because in order to do it well in kids, I needed to learn how to do it well in adults.”

In the years since, Gore has directed more than 100 clinical trials for children and adults. She sits on advisory panels to the National Cancer Institute and the executive committee on acute lymphoblastic leukemia for the Children’s Oncology Group, a national clinical research consortium. She also cofounded the Pediatric Oncology Experimental Therapeutics Program, a network of 11 large academic
medical centers that promotes development of new, promising therapies for kids, adolescents and young adults with cancer.

She still cares for adult phase I patients at the CU Cancer Center. But working with kids with cancer is still her first love. Her office at Children’s
is filled with photos and notes from patients and their families reporting in on life.

“Parents are afraid we’ll forget their kids,” she says. “They may underestimate the impact these kids have on us. Every kid is inspirational because they keep walking through the door every day, no matter what happens to them.”

She remembers one of her first patients,a teenage girl from Highlands Ranch, who asked her why she was a doctor.

“I told her, ‘Because I want to cure cancer.’ She looked at me and said, as only a teenager could, ‘Um … you already have.’ Meaning I had already cured her cancer. I think about that a lot because for that one kid, it’s true. Sometimes I feel completely inadequate because some kids,
I haven’t saved. But my Mom’s story taught me that I’m not smart enough to predict the future. We don’t know who can be cured and who can’t. The fact that there are kids who are alive because of the things we’ve done keeps me coming back to work.”

A patient comes to the phase I clinical trials program because standard therapy failed. Gore says people consider her the “last-ditch doctor.”

“That may be true, but my goal is to help my patients live the life they want to live, for as long as they can,” she says. “Ultimately, I want to cure everyone who walks in the door, but I also know 7-year-olds who have lived better than 90-year-olds. It’s how you live your life that really matters.”