According to Dr. Renbarger, “in about 85 to 90 percent of cases, we’ve found something clinically relevant about the patient or the tumor as a result of testing to help further guide therapy.” Dr. Renbarger is drawn to targeted therapies because they “may have fewer side effects than previous treatments, helping the child have a better quality of life and improving survival rates.”
Her optimism has been buoyed by the breakthrough of a colleague, Karen E. Pollok, who has used the cancer cells donated by Tyler Trent — they are called TT2 — to find a combination of drugs that substantially retards tumor growth. The donors of tumor samples are generally kept anonymous, but Tyler’s parents wanted to continue honoring his activism.
Dr. Pollok, who along with Dr. Renbarger visited Tyler two weeks before he died, was inspired by the meeting: “He was busily answering texts, tweets and managing Facebook to fulfill his last mission: to raise awareness for pediatric cancer research.” Today, Dr. Pollok adds, “our lab-quote when we discuss the research using Tyler’s cells is, ‘We will never give up!’” At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, her work on Tyler’s tumor models was deemed essential. She and colleagues published research in August in the journal Cancers that demonstrated that a combination of drugs could block the growth of these aggressive cancers.
Even after Tyler suffered seizures, clogged kidney tubes, emergency operations, and fevers that landed him in hospice, he gave interviews and published essays that testified to his remarkable ability to continue expressing himself in his unique way. Though Tyler never entered full adulthood, he managed to sustain “his passion to do whatever he could, even in the midst of this crazy, horrible journey that he was on,” Dr. Renbarger says.
Children with cancer, whether or not they are cured, need to find ways to retain a sense of themselves while dealing with the deleterious side effects of cytotoxic treatments. Dr. Renbarger therefore helped to create the Karuna Precision Wellness Center, where she works with individuals during and after cancer treatments to optimize their long-term quality of life through personalized integrative and wellness plans. The areas of focus include physical functioning, mental health (cognitive and emotional), and nutrition.