A Conversation with Dr. Austin

Last month, we heard from Dr. Corey, the pediatric hematology/oncology division chief, talk about his research using zebrafish. Now, I'd like to share a conversation with the “next generation” of clinician scientists. Meet Frances Austin, M.D. She is a Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Third-Year Fellow at Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU. She is focusing on solid tumors, called sarcomas, which can occur both in the pediatric population (Ewings Sarcoma, Rhabdomyosarcoma, and Osteosarcoma for example) and in adults. 

Lisa: Dr. Austin, you recently completed some exciting research — some might even say you had a “breakthrough.” 
Dr. Austin: We had a patient who had two different tumors. This patient had a mutation in the P53 gene, which we know is a gateway gene to cancer. When the P53 gene is working properly, it kills any bad cells. When it is mutated, it loses its function to stop the cancer cells from developing and multiplying. I was able to pinpoint his mutation explaining why he developed two tumors. No one has ever found this mutation. Since we know that as many as 15% of kids are carriers of the P53 mutation, I'm hoping that this knowledge will be the foundation for continued sarcoma genetic screening and research.

Lisa: How has Dr. Corey's arrival influenced you?
Dr. Austin: Dr. Corey lit a fire under me and has been incredibly supportive. He gave me the chance to take on a research project that was interesting to me and provided guidance  and support along the way.

Lisa: What's up next for you?
Dr. Austin: Pediatric Blood & Cancer accepted my paper for publication.  (Editor's Note: Pediatric Blood & Cancer is the official journal of ASPHO and the International Society of Pediatric Oncology). We are in the process of developing a solid tumor program. I'm also hoping to collaborate with an adult sarcoma group here at VCU in their work to develop clinical trials for Ewings Sarcoma and Rhabdomyosarcoma. We also have created a combined tumor board to discuss tumors that affect kids and young adults. With combined resources, we can look at a more well-rounded treatment. I'm hopeful that I will be able to obtain a grant to help me move forward with this exciting research. I'm also waiting to learn that I have been invited to stay as an assistant professor.

Lisa: Your interest in cancer research is based in a personal experience that you don't share very often.
Dr. Austin: Yes, I was always interested in genetics and molecular biology. I worked in a lab before and during college and planned to go to medical school. Just prior to taking my entrance exams, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. I had to put medical school on hold while I underwent six months of chemotherapy. This experience was incredibly eye-opening and helped me to better understand the huge role that research plays in the treatment of cancer. I ended up working in a research lab for two years before going to medical school. After a four-year surgical residency, I realized I was missing the kids, so I started a pediatrics residency. All of these experiences helped me to understand how much patient care can govern research. I have a strong desire to decrease symptoms and improve outcomes for our youngest cancer patients.

Lisa: How do you spend any free time you might have?
Dr. Austin: My husband, who is a pediatric neuro-radiologist at VCU, and I have two young children who keep us incredibly busy running around Richmond. We really love the city and are super excited about staying. 

     Dr. Frances Austin received her medical degree from Drexel University College of Medicine. She is a Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Third-Year Fellow at Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU.
     In 2007, Connor’s Heroes, through the support of our donors, created an endowment fund and established the Connor's Heroes Pediatric Cancer Research Fund. This led to the hiring of Dr. Seth Corey in 2015 to head up the work. Connor's Heroes also supports the Jamie Hess Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Research Fund. These are the only funds in Virginia that are directly supporting the research efforts of Dr. Corey and his team of scientists at VCU Massey Cancer Center.