Growing Future Treatments in the Garden of Clinical Trials

By JAMES DOWD


Growing Future Treatments in the Garden of Clinical Trials

Elizabeth Fox

When Dr. Elizabeth Fox moved to Memphis from Philadelphia nearly two years ago to accept a leadership role at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, she soon discovered several differences between the City of Good Abode and the City of Brotherly Love.

Such as a local hunger for BBQ rather than Philly Cheesesteak. And fan fervor for the Memphis Grizzlies instead of the Philadelphia 76ers. And even occasional news reports about efforts to preserve the Liberty Bowl, not the Liberty Bell.

But one facet of Memphis life that particularly resonated with the senior vice president of clinical trials research at St. Jude was the ability to practice her love of gardening in the fertile soil surrounding her new home. Her previous efforts had been limited by space and climate.

"In Philadelphia I lived in the Center City District that's filled with skyscrapers, so my gardening was confined to containers," Fox explained. "But Memphis gets a lot of sun and I have a small yard where I can spread out with a larger variety of plants and help them grow."

Fox's passion for growth plays out in myriad ways every day at St. Jude, where she oversees teams of researchers focusing on therapeutic clinical trials for childhood cancer. There are more than 160 clinical trials in various stages at St. Jude and Fox is committed to the success of these investigative efforts.

"Childhood cancers are fundamentally different from adult cancers because they aren't driven by environment or habits. The children we treat are incredibly inspiring to their families and to all of us at St. Jude because they don't see themselves as sick. They are resilient and they're optimistic and they bounce back," Fox said. "I continue to be inspired by the power of clinical trials that have led to a remarkable survival rate of more than 80 percent for children with cancer. Our job every day is to work to cure cancer so that these children can have healthy lives, and we're succeeding."

Leaders at St. Jude share Fox's passion for research, and medical personnel are pursuing aggressive methods that are yielding dramatic results in the fight against childhood cancer.

"Moving discoveries from the laboratory to frontline therapy requires clinical trials. To accelerate progress for children with cancer, we're committing substantial resources to advance clinical testing of new therapeutic agents," said James R. Downing, MD, St. Jude president and CEO. "Under Dr. Fox's leadership, we will expand large-scale, collaborative clinical trials to reach more children with cancer in the U.S. and around the world. The number of patients on St. Jude-led protocols may grow as much as 30 percent during the next six years."

Charles Roberts, MD, PhD, executive vice president and director of the St. Jude Comprehensive Cancer Center, agreed.

"Dr. Fox's work is invaluable to the implementation of our ambitious strategic plan to help more children as we expand our infrastructure to run clinical trials around the world. Dr. Fox has a remarkable intellect coupled with exceptional experience in leading clinical trials for childhood cancer," Roberts said. "She also has a deep commitment to both collaboration and mentorship -- essential components as we strive to increase survival rates for children around the world who are afflicted with pediatric cancer and catastrophic blood diseases."

Fox's academic and medical training provided her with a depth of experience that is uniquely suited to her role at St. Jude. She earned a bachelor's degree in Laboratory Sciences from Northeastern University, a master's in Clinical Research from Duke University College of Medicine, with an emphasis on research management, database development and statistics, and a Medical Degree from Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. She completed her internship and residency in pediatrics at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, NY, and received fellowship training at the Pediatric Oncology Branch of the National Cancer Institute.

Currently there are a number of trials focusing on children with brain tumors, and many others dedicated to children with leukemia. Doctors want to explore the minimum amount of chemotherapy or radiation needed to treat childhood cancers and Fox said the teams of researchers take great satisfaction in the knowledge that their work is having a positive global impact.

"We are delighted with Dr. Fox serving at the helm of our Clinical Trials Research operations in this period of rapid growth," said Ellis J. Neufeld, MD, PhD, Clinical Director and Physician-in-Chief at St. Jude. "Her calm and informed leadership guides the collaborations of our physicians and scientists on campus, and around the world, as we work together to achieve breakthroughs in pediatric therapies."

Despite challenges in 2020 due to COVID-19 that caused the research teams to temporarily prioritize treatment trials, that work is now back to normal, Fox said, and clinical trials continue unabated. St. Jude implemented a policy requiring all employees to be vaccinated against COVIC-19 by early September, similar to medical care facilities across the country with such requirements for workers.

"Our goal is to protect our children and their families," Fox said. "This is one more way we can help do that."

When she's not busy directing clinical trials, Fox often can be found at local farmers markets, or checking out new restaurants, or caring for her garden with a sense of optimistic dedication. When she considers the time and effort spent tending her plants, Fox prefers to take a long-term approach that is perhaps reflective of the lifesaving work she conducts at St. Jude.

"Annuals are lovely when they're blooming, but I tend to favor perennials," Fox said. "I like their longevity. I love it when they come back."