Member Spotlight: Robyn Gartrell, MD, on Novel Immunotherapy to Fight Childhood Cancers

February 19, 2021

Dr. Robyn Gartrell danced her way, so to speak, to pediatric oncology.

During a college dance-a-thon to raise funds for pediatric cancer, Dr. Gartrell met a family whose child had been diagnosed with DIPG, a lethal brain tumor. They were so hopeful and full of ideas on how to make the experience of cancer less scary for their child and other pediatric patients. They would dress up as Disney characters or superheroes for their child’s treatment appointments to help make the experience a bit lighter, she recalls. This chance encounter made a lasting impression, and ultimately led Dr. Gartrell to where she is today.

Robyn Gartrell, MD
Robyn Gartrell, MD

“I found that the group of people that are affected by pediatric cancer are  so special, and the children affected by cancer so incredible and resilient,” she says. “All I want to do is give them their childhood back.”

Dr. Gartrell, a member of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons, is a physician-scientist who is focused on bringing cutting-edge cancer immunotherapies that have had success in treating adult cancers to childhood cancers.

When she was a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Yvonne Saenger, MD, Dr. Gartrell began experimenting with multiplex immunofluorescence, a platform that allows researchers to study multiple biomarkers on the same tissue section. She applied this technique to melanoma tumors at the time and now continues to study the tumor immune microenvironment in childhood cancers, primarily in brain tumors. Her research uses multiplex technologies to help determine which patients will respond to immunotherapy and to identify the right treatment combinations to improve immune responses in patients who are resistant to these therapies.

In the fall of 2020, Dr. Gartrell won a Hyundai Hope on Wheels Hope Scholar award to fund her work in investigating the tumor immune microenvironment and potential for use of immunotherapy in high-grade and low-grade pediatric glioma.

“My goal is to bring some of the life-saving treatments that we've found in adults using the immune system to treat cancer to children and to hopefully start providing more cures and even less toxicity to our patients than our current therapies can offer,” she says.

Dr. Gartrell, who is a member of the HICCC’s Tumor Biology and Microenvironment research program, is also designing a clinical trial in pediatric nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a rare head and neck cancer. A known side effect of radiation therapy for this cancer in children is persistent dental problems and trouble swallowing, as well as potential deformity. She and her collaborators are interested in studying whether combining upfront chemotherapy and immunotherapy could decrease the amount of radiation and toxicity pediatric patients are exposed to in the long-term.

Dr. Gartrell working in the hospital with volunteer pediatric attending physicians
Dr. Gartrell (left) with volunteer pediatric attendings on the frontlines in the Spring of 2020

Last spring, when New York City became an epicenter of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus, Dr. Gartrell volunteered to serve in the frontlines of the hospital and helped care for COVID-19 patients in the adult intensive care unit. She witnessed firsthand the isolation patients had to endure while fighting or succumbing to the disease. “We’d often give our cell phones to patients so they could video chat with their family,” she says, “and we were also there for patients who were dying of COVID and were only able to see a family member through a window.”

Dr. Gartrell, who completed both her postdoctoral fellowship and master’s degree at Columbia, credits the university for supporting her career with a variety of resources to conduct clinical and translational research. To pay it forward, she is currently devising an educational program to assist oncology fellows and trainees in taking advantage of Columbia resources available to them for bench-to-bedside research.