Training future leaders in young adult cancer care

Seymour and Merle Cohen (front-row, center) and Lisa Schenkman (back row, third from the left).
Seymour and Merle Cohen (front-row, center) and Lisa Schenkman (back row, third from the left).

In 2008, UChicago Medicine physician-scientists Wendy Stock, MD, and the late James Nachman, MD, made a discovery that dramatically altered the way doctors treat adolescents and young adults with cancer.

Ten years’ worth of clinical data revealed that adolescent and young adult (AYA) patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) lived longer when they received a more intense pediatric therapy regimen compared to an adult regimen. This pivotal finding led the researchers to conduct a clinical trial, testing the pediatric approach in ALL patients ages 16-39. They found that the pediatric regimen significantly increased patients’ survival, defining a new standard of care for patients with ALL nationwide.

“Their study created a real paradigm shift in how we treat leukemia in adolescents and young adults,” said Jennifer McNeer, MD, MS, associate professor of pediatrics at UChicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital. “We now realize that this patient population needs to be thought of as a unique population in and of itself.”

Today, Drs. Stock and McNeer are working to gain a better understanding of what makes cancers in this age group biologically different from other age groups, with the goal of incorporating targeted therapies into treatment plans to benefit patients.

Beyond biology, Drs. Stock and McNeer are examining how patients’ compliance with their treatment plans affects outcomes.

“These are young people who are trying to work, go to school, and start families,” Dr. McNeer explained. “All of these factors can complicate things like getting to appointments and taking medications.”

Drs. Stock and McNeer are developing strategies that not only help patients overcome these challenges, but also help schools, employers, and significant others understand what these patients are going through. They also seek to empower patients to take an active role in their care and make fully informed decisions about their treatment.

To expand this work and ensure tomorrow’s physician-scientists are equipped to continue improving outcomes for this unique patient population, Merle and Seymour Cohen and their daughter, Lisa Schenkman, established the Seymour A. Cohen Fellowship in Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology at Comer Children’s. One of the few fellowships of its kind in the country, the Cohen Fellowship draws exceptional young minds into the field and positions them for future success.

“Their gift provides a unique opportunity to develop future generations of clinical scientists who will focus on different aspects of treatment for young adults with cancer,” Dr. Stock said. “The Cohen-Schenkman family was so generous and forward-thinking to create this fellowship to promote care and research in this patient population.”

The family saw a need for supporting tomorrow’s physician-scientists to carry on the important work led by Drs. Stock and McNeer.

“We hope this fellowship will train doctors and researchers who learn from the experts at UChicago Medicine and then take their knowledge to benefit the broader community,” Lisa said.

Merle and Lisa became interested in learning more about UChicago Medicine’s AYA Oncology Program after meeting Dr. Stock last year at a Leukemia & Lymphoma Society dinner.

“From the moment I met Wendy, I thought, she’s so smart and cares so much about what she’s doing. I would really like to support her work,” Merle said.

Merle and Lisa toured the AYA Oncology clinic at Comer Children’s, where they learned about the program’s comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to care for young adults. By bringing together adult and pediatric specialists, the AYA Program offers a coordinated, one-stop model of care to ensure patients receive the latest treatments and psychosocial support.

“I was impressed by the program on multiple levels,” Lisa said. “First, because they are taking care of the whole person—not just their cancer. Secondly, because UChicago Medicine researchers discovered the best protocol for treating these patients. And, finally, because the University is leading the way in this work.”

The family has a long history of supporting cancer research. In 1946, Merle’s father, Maurice Goldblatt, was appointed inaugural chair of the University of Chicago Cancer Research Foundation (UCCRF), formed by University trustees to support cancer research at UChicago. Later, in 1954, Goldblatt launched the Cancer Research Foundation (CRF), an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to funding early career cancer scientists and advancing cancer research.

Seymour served as a member of the UCCRF Board of Trustees and remains an honorary trustee today, while Merle serves as president of the CRF board and Lisa as secretary. In addition, Merle is an honorary member of the UCCRF Women’s Board, and Lisa is a member of the Comer Development Board and co-chair of the board’s capital campaign.

“They were pioneers way back when, and now they’re continuing that legacy by helping us develop a whole new discipline,” Dr. Stock said.

For Lisa, the practice of philanthropy was instilled in her from a young age. “I was always raised that—when you’re fortunate enough—you give back,” she said. “It’s a lesson that was passed on from my grandparents to my parents to me and hopefully will continue with my children.”

The inaugural Cohen Fellows—Nicole Sunseri, MD, PhD, and Joseph Wynne, MD, PhD—are already working with Drs. Stock and McNeer to develop a new treatment approach for AYA patients, particularly those with relapsed ALL.

“I’m truly grateful to the Cohen-Schenkman family for affording me the opportunity to work with these individuals—not just the physicians but also the patients,” Dr. Sunseri said. “We have amazing patients who teach us so much. You want to be better because of them.”

Merle, Seymour, and Lisa are excited to see the fellowship grow over time and train a cohort of talented, compassionate physician-scientists who will improve outcomes for young adults with cancer.

“This gift is really just the beginning,” Merle said. “And as far as I’m concerned, there’s no better place in the world to make this kind of investment.”

If you’re interested in supporting the AYA Program or other critical programs at Comer Children’s, please consider making a donation or attending the Comer Children’s Kids’ Fashion Show on April 28, 2019 at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago. Your contribution improves the lives of young people here in Chicago and beyond.

Scroll to Top
Skip to content