World-Renowned Cancer Researcher Joins Levine Children’s — and Accelerates Our Quest for Cures
Orginally published on Atrium Health Daily Dose
When Giselle Sholler, MD started her pediatric oncology career in the early 2000s, only one in three children with neuroblastoma survived. As she helped children and their families face down the disease, and witnessed their pain and struggles, she knew she had to do more than deliver the best available treatments — she had to pursue breakthroughs.
“I realized that if I was going to keep treating kids with cancer, I would need to do research that could give them hope,” Dr. Sholler says.
Fast forward to today and the survival rate for neuroblastoma has nearly doubled, thanks to work by Dr. Sholler and other researchers. But children with the disease still have to endure intense chemotherapy and, sometimes, lifelong side effects. That’s why Dr. Sholler is pursuing the next wave of advances, by developing precision therapies that try to directly kill cancer cells, with minimal impact on the rest of the body.
Her progress has made her one of the world’s top pediatric cancer doctors and researchers, and she recently joined Atrium Health Levine Children’s to accelerate her quest for cures.
“I wasn’t planning to move at this point in my career with my daughter still in high school, but the opportunity was too promising to pass up,” says Dr. Sholler, director of The Isabella Santos Foundation Solid and Rare Tumor Program at Levine Children’s. “The vision and motivation of the team is something I want to be a part of. The ongoing translational research has so much to offer, and together we can grow this program to offer hope for kids more quickly.”
Helping Kids with Neuroblastoma Achieve Remission
Caring for patients is also a pivotal part of Dr. Sholler’s work, and she is so beloved by her patients that nearly 50 families from outside North Carolina — including families from 19 countries — are following her to continue their care at Levine Children’s. Aidan Rawls, who just turned 6, is one of them.
Aidan’s cancer journey started in September 2017. The normally feisty toddler was lethargic and his mom, Elena Rawls, couldn’t shake the feeling that something just wasn’t right. A battery of tests at a hospital near their Florida home revealed that Aidan, had stage 4 high-risk neuroblastoma.
He began intensive treatment at the hospital near his home, enduring multiple rounds of chemotherapy and surgery to remove a tumor from his adrenal gland. When this failed to stop his cancer, Aidan joined a clinical trial of an innovative new immunotherapy.
Still, scans suggested his cancer was still active and the Rawls family knew they needed more help. Elena had heard about Dr. Sholler’s amazing work through a Facebook support group of families touched by neuroblastoma.
“She was working in Michigan at the time and I thought, ‘I don’t care how we get there, that’s where we’re going,’” Elena says.
The Rawls met with Dr. Sholler for the first time around Valentines’ Day 2019. Fortunately, a new set of scans showed no signs of active disease in Aidan. What’s more, Dr. Sholler was leading a study of a therapy, called difluoromethylornithine (DFMO), that’s designed to prevent kids like Aidan from relapsing.
Early results from studies by Dr. Sholler and other researchers have been so promising that the drug received Breakthrough Therapy Designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April 2020.
“Having Aidan on this clinical trial gave us back a sense of normalcy. We don’t have to travel as often. He takes the pills at home. He’s healthy and we don’t have the crazy side effects we had with other treatments” Elena says. “If I could say anything to Dr. Sholler, it would be ‘thank you.’ Because I don’t know where Aidan — or a lot of other kids — would be without her care, her expertise and the clinical trials.”
Working Toward Cures
Now Dr. Sholler is working to bring innovative therapies to even more kids. In November, Levine Children’s will finish renovating a space that will be home to three state-of-the-art labs. Dr. Sholler and her team will use these to learn more about pediatric tumors and how to stop them.
She’s also continuing to develop new clinical trials, including one that could open as soon as December that combines precision medicine and immunotherapy for neuroblastoma. This approach could activate a child’s immune system against their tumor.
“Clinical trials are incredibly important, because they’re how improve outcomes for patients,” Dr. Sholler says. “We’re going to keep creating these trials and developing new therapies, and we’re not going to stop until we have cures.”