Dr. Greg Aune

Saving pediatric cancer survivors

Monday, July 28, 2014by Elizabeth Allen

Greg Aune, M.D., Ph.D., has dedicated his life to conducting research on the basic science of cardiac disease in pediatric cancer survivors.

Greg Aune, M.D., Ph.D.: former high school athlete, childhood cancer survivor, pediatric oncologist at the UT Health Science Center, husband to a neonatologist and father of two young sets of twins.

He is the definition of a busy life.

So, for a while, Dr. Aune blamed his fatigue on the demands such a life makes — until he was diagnosed with critical aortic valve stenosis and coronary artery disease. Then he became his own best example of why his work matters.

As a teenager, Dr. Aune had battled and beaten Hodgkin lymphoma. The experience led him into pediatric oncology, and to an interest in the health problems related to cancer survivorship. After giving a talk on the topic, he was stunned at how many people approached him to say they hadn’t thought about those issues before.

With 13 million adult and pediatric cancer survivors in the United States today and 20 million projected by 2022, both groups face significant and special health issues. To Dr. Aune it was obvious.

“A third of long-term survivors have a life-threatening medical problem related to the treatment that saved them," Dr. Aune said. "You save someone's life at 15, but they're dead by the time they're 50? You have a problem there."

That life-threatening experience steered Dr. Aune’s research from experimental cancer therapeutics into an area of emerging importance — the basic science of cardiac disease in pediatric cancer survivors. But building momentum for this new area of research is challenging in a world focused on cures.

“The world of oncology and cancer research is set up to keep doing what it’s doing now, and what drives it is developing new medications to treat cancer,” Aune said. “That has worked fantastically well in pediatric cancer — survival rates are so much higher now — but there needs to be some thought about the huge numbers of survivors.

“With a more basic understanding of how chemotherapy damages normal tissues such as the heart, we can begin to develop new medicines that protect vulnerable organs from the damage that results in late health effects in survivors.”

He’s collaborating with researcher Helen Parsons, Ph.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics, who is principal investigator on a study of childhood cancer survivors.

In his laboratory at Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute, Dr. Aune is working on a series of studies that examine the cardiac "late effects" that occur in pediatric mice exposed to chemotherapy. Then, in this study, Drs. Aune and Parsons extend animal laboratory models directly to patients by enrolling survivors of childhood cancers to evaluate the diagnostic capabilities of cardiac MRI.

“We know that cancer survivors treated with certain drugs have a higher risk of heart problems,” Dr. Parsons said, “but we don’t yet understand the types of people who are more at risk, and we don’t know the best technology to detect these problems early.”

With his own next generation looking to him for years of future guidance, Dr. Aune couldn’t be more motivated to help.