Director of pediatric oncology appointed to growing cancer team

December 10, 2007

Stephen Skapek, MD, a nationally respected expert on malignant soft tumors, has been named associate professor of pediatrics and director of pediatric oncology at the University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital.

He comes to the University of Chicago Medical Center from St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. As a pediatrician and researcher, Skapek, 45, focuses on understanding molecular and genetic mechanisms that lead to cell proliferation in various childhood cancers.

Earlier this year, Skapek discovered that a combination of anticancer drugs could stop or slow the growth of a childhood cancer called desmoid fibromatosis, a disease that develops in cells that help form tendons, muscles and nervous tissue. An aggressive form of cancer, desmoid fibromatosis often spreads to other parts of the body.

By combining vinblastine and methotrexate, Skapek arrested tumor growth in most of the youths in the study. In some of the children, the drugs blocked tumor growth; in others, they reduced tumor size. Of the 28 enrolled patients, ages 7 months to 20 years, 20 patients received at least some benefit from the combination of drugs.

In a separate study, Skapek discovered that Arf, a gene that is known to block cancer formation, also signals to certain blood vessels in the developing eye and causes them to shrink and go away. This new finding suggests that Arf might also block cancer, in part, by controlling the blood vessels that are needed for a tumor to continue to grow.

"These insights will lead to new treatments by hindering a cancer's ability to survive," said John Cunningham, MD, section chief of pediatric hematology/oncology and professor of pediatrics, physiology and stem cell research. "By understanding how to promote blood vessel regression, we might one day be able to stop the blood supply needed for cancer cells to proliferate."

In addition to St. Jude, Skapek worked at Children's Hospital in Boston and at Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, during which time he was on active duty in the US Air Force.

Skapek received a bachelor's degree in 1984 and a medical degree in 1988, both from Duke University. He did his internship and residency at Wilford Hall Medical Center, followed by pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship training at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and the Children's Hospital in Boston and laboratory training at the Harvard Medical School and at the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

Skapek is a frequent reviewer for several publications, including Pediatrics, Journal of Cell Biology and Clinical Cancer Research. He is a member of the Children's Oncology Group Subcommittee for Soft Tissue Sarcoma and the American Association for Cancer Research.

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