News from the Front Lines

James F. Amatruda, MD, PhD

Associate Professor, Depts. of Pediatrics, Internal Medicine and Molecular Biology Nearburg Family Professor of Pediatric Oncology Research

UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX

Jim was educated at Harvard University and received his MD and Ph.D. degrees from Washington University, before doing an Internal Medicine Residency at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He completed a Medical Oncology fellowship at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute/Massachusetts General Hospital and postdoctoral work at Boston Children’s Hospital. In 2005 He moved to UT Southwestern to start his lab.

Jim specializes in research and treatment of children’s cancers, with a special focus on germ cell tumors, sarcomas and Wilms tumor of the kidney. His lab uses a variety of approaches including genomic studies and genetic models including mice and zebrafish. At UT Southwestern, Jim is the Associate Division Chief for Research in the Division of Pediatric HematologyOncology and the Assistant Director of the MD-PhD program. He is also Chair of the Rare Tumors Biology Committee in the Children’s Oncology Group, the national organization that coordinates clinical trials for children with cancer.

Tell us about your history with the Forbeck Foundation

I had the great privilege of attending the Forum in 2003 as a Scholar and returned for the Scholar Retreats over the next few years. This was a wonderful opportunity to meet other young scientists and to benefit from interactions with world-class scientific mentors, right at the start of my independent career. This made a tremendous difference to my success as a  physician-scientist.  When I had the opportunity to join the SAB, I jumped at the chance to give back to an organization that has helped me so much.

What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in the world of cancer research right now?

Precision Medicine (matching the treatment to the exact characteristics of a particular patient’s cancer) and immunotherapy (unleashing the patient’s immune system against the cancer) are two extremely exciting areas.

Why is this important and what implications does it have?

Precision Medicine takes advantage of the recent revolution in how we understand cancer at the level of specific DNA mutations. Our hope is to replace our current therapies, which have too many side effects, with therapies that are targeted to the specific mutations in the tumor cells themselves. Immunotherapy has already proven to be extremely effective in some cases of melanoma, lung cancer, and leukemia. We are hoping to make progress in immune-driven treatments of other cancers as well.

What do you think most people get wrong about cancer?

I think people don’t realize just how much progress is being made in cancer treatment. Many patients are now living longer with better quality of life after receiving a cancer diagnosis. And I wish more people appreciated how much we can each do to reduce our risk of getting cancer with proper diet, exercise, and simple screening tests.

Are there any other promising trends in the cancer research field that we should know about?

CRISPR, a tool for genome modification, is beginning to have a big impact in some diseases such as muscular dystrophy. We haven’t yet figured out how best to use the new technology in treating cancer, but great progress may be coming in the near future.

Where should we be focusing most of our time and effort in getting closer to a cure?

For many adult cancers, more effective prevention strategies would make a huge difference. In the case of childhood cancers, we don’t really know the cause in most cases. Here the emphasis will need to be on finding ways to cure the most difficult to treat cancers without causing deleterious side effects.