Damon Runyon News

July 6, 2017

As a high school freshman, Peter Jauschnegg was something of a prodigy in varsity track & field.

But a day before his regional competition, the Maryland native suffered a seizure in his home that led to a diagnosis of Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. He had a tumor on the base of his skull, involving critical blood vessels and exerting pressure on his brain.

Peter’s family took him to Johns Hopkins University for treatment, by a team that included Michael A. Koldobskiy, MD, PhD, a Damon Runyon-Sohn Pediatric Cancer Fellow who studies epigenetic modifications in cancer—biological mechanisms used by cancer cells to turn genes on and off.

For the next six months, Peter endured a strict regimen of chemotherapy that left him exhausted and unable to attend school. After his treatment, Peter’s health returned and he was declared cancer-free. “It was nice, especially once my taste buds returned and I was able to really enjoy food again,” said Peter. “I was getting back in shape and rejoined the track team.”

Unfortunately, Peter was among the rare percentage of cancer patients who trade one cancer for another, and the chemotherapy treatments he received for Ewing’s sarcoma caused the onset of leukemia.

“Peter’s case really highlights the challenges we face in pediatric oncology, and shows how much work remains to be done,” said Michael. “We were able to successfully treat his life-threatening Ewing sarcoma, but the treatment was so toxic that it caused a new cancer to develop. We need smarter, targeted therapies that achieve cures but also reduce adverse late effects on the health of survivors.”

“I wasn’t just sad. I hate to say it but I was a little bit angry, too,” said Peter. “I immediately went outside and walked around my neighborhood, just to get the anger out of me.”

Peter’s leukemia treatment was very aggressive and isolating; over a period of three months, he would alternate three weeks in the hospital followed by one week at home. During this time Peter’s younger brother was identified as a perfect match for the bone marrow transplant, which helped save Peter’s life. “Oh yeah, and he never lets me forget it,” Peter joked. “Therapy-related myeloid leukemia is exceptionally hard to treat,” said Michael. “Peter’s case was even more challenging, as his chemotherapy options were limited by complications from his prior intensive treatment for sarcoma. We opted to incorporate a drug that inhibits DNA methylation, an epigenetic mechanism that I study in the lab, into Peter’s treatment. Remarkably, he achieved remission and went on to bone marrow transplant.”

Peter’s medical team left a lasting impression on him. The nursing staff at Johns Hopkins was especially wonderful and has fueled a desire for Peter to become a nurse himself. And as for his treatment by Michael he said, “I love the guy, you can tell he really cares about his work and it’s not just a job for him. After they found the leukemia he was just as heartbroken as my family and me.” 

Peter was thankful for the support and advice he received from Michael, and felt an affinity to the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. “I like the Foundation’s approach. Sometimes in medicine and other fields, people get so set in their ways, and it’s frustrating. You need a creative approach, like Damon Runyon’s, to figure out how to solve a problem.”

“I’m a pediatric oncologist, I see kids with cancer in the clinic every day,” said Michael. “And one of the advantages of being a physician-scientist is that you have that motivation to make your research relevant and to make sure the research is translated into something that will actually impact patients.”

Michael is especially thankful for the time and freedom his Damon Runyon-Sohn award has provided: “The hope for the research I’m doing now is that it will lead to both a diagnostic tool and to new therapies. There is no better feeling than helping a sick child get better; it’s truly inspiring.” Since less than 4% of the National Cancer Institute budget is dedicated to pediatrics, the Damon Runyon-Sohn award was created in partnership with the Sohn Conference Foundation in 2012 to address the need to support researchers with the potential to significantly impact the prevention, diagnosis or treatment of pediatric cancers. We thank the Sohn Foundation for its continued generous support of this program.