Hematologist focuses on new treatments for kids with leukemias and other blood disorders

Hematologist/oncologist Jun Zhao, D.O.: Fascination with blood disorders keeps her at the leading edge of new treatments that help kids.

For Jun Zhao, D.O., becoming a doctor was the perfect intersection of an intellectually challenging profession and a way to do good.

“I felt like it was the best thing I could do to give back to the world,” said Dr. Zhao, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist with Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with UofL School of Medicine.

New and emerging treatments for children with leukemias and other blood disorders make this an exciting time in the field, Dr. Zhao said.

“Overall, it’s very exciting what we can start offering our patients,” she said.

New B-cell ALL treatment

For children with the most common form of leukemia, B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), CAR-T immunotherapy offers a revolutionary way to boost the body’s own immune system to kill cancer cells. The B-cell ALL treatment is approved for children who did not respond to other treatment or have relapsed two or more times.

B-cell ALL is an aggressive form of leukemia in which too many immature white blood cells (B-cell lymphoblasts) in the bone marrow leave less room for healthy cells.

Another new B-cell ALL treatment is Blincyto, a drug that also helps the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells.

And for patients with sickle cell disease, emerging gene therapy is offering new hope, according to Dr. Zhao.

Also, according to Dr. Zhao, treatments are always improving, always becoming more refined.

“As we discover more about each disease, as we understand the pathways better, we can certainly provide more and better solutions,” Dr. Zhao said. “Better long-term data can adjust treatments for the newly diagnosed patients because you always learn from those that came before.”

Norton Children’s Cancer Institute

Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with UofL School of Medicine, is home to the largest pediatric hematology program in Kentucky.

Call (502) 629-7725

‘Helping those who can’t help themselves’

The daughter of two physicians, Dr. Zhao chose pediatrics because she likes taking care of children.

“I like helping those who can’t help themselves, which is in essence who kids are. It’s also an educational opportunity to teach them about their health and to start advocating for themselves,” Dr. Zhao said.

Originally from Dallas, Texas, Dr. Zhao attended the University of Texas at Austin and then the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, in Fort Worth. It was in medical school that Dr. Zhao became fascinated by inherited blood disorders and cancer biology.

After medical school, Dr. Zhao did her medical residency in pediatrics at Dell Children’s Hospital in Austin and then a fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology at Phoenix Children’s Hospital in Arizona.

As a part of her fellowship, she researched new ways to detect and monitor pediatric solid tumors using circulating tumor DNA.

“We’ve come a long way for leukemia and lymphoma, but the treatments for solid tumors are still lacking,” Dr. Zhao said.

Dr. Zhao splits her time between treating children at Norton Children’s Hospital and the outpatient clinic at the Novak Center for Children’s Health.

In her spare time, Dr. Zhao likes to catch up on her sleep, hang out with friends and travel. She traveled to Rome last year and hopes to go to Spain in the next year or two.