Story by: Kim Huston on January 28, 2021
Natalie F. Slone, D.O., pediatric hematologist/oncologist with Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, always knew she wanted to be a doctor. According to Dr. Slone, her mother said she talked about becoming a doctor from a very young age — and mom has a photo of her at 4 or 5 years old, asleep on top of an anatomy book, to prove it. Dr. Slone has brought her drive to take care of others to Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, where she treats solid tumors in children and teens.
During college, Dr. Slone realized that a career that involved caring for others was something that she really wanted her life to include — so she pursued her childhood dream of becoming a physician. While she completed rotations in medical school, she found herself naturally drawn to pediatrics, and oncology because she enjoyed caring for those kids the most.
“I chose pediatric oncology because I found myself gravitating toward those kids, particularly when I was in my residency. I just always found myself wanting to be with our oncology kiddos more than anyone else,” Dr. Slone said. “These kids that battle cancer; they just have such innate, bright personalities and are so full of courage. They handle these conditions so much better than any adult could.”
Dr. Slone’s interest in treating solid tumors and sarcomas in children is rooted in the challenge and study that treating these types of cancer requires.
“It’s not always a straightforward treatment plan,” Dr. Slone said. “A lot of times, treatments may not work the way you want them to, and it forces us as physicians to think outside the box and pushes us to find more treatment strategies, to consult experts across the country. When we’re successful, I feel so joyous and happy because it is so challenging.”
Her interest in these challenging types of cancers led her to focus on emerging therapy research during her pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
While at MD Anderson, she joined the immunology science laboratory where she helped conduct research focused on the development of a dendritic cell immunotherapy. Dendritic cells are a type of immune cell that works with other immune cells to help shape the immune response to different viruses, bacteria or even tumor cells. The researchers within the lab were focused on the development of a dendritic cell vaccine for treating melanoma, a type of skin cancer. While at the lab, Dr. Slone looked to incorporate the learnings of the dendritic cell vaccine to osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects children. It remains a challenging cancer for physicians to treat.
“Unfortunately, for the past 20 years, researchers have not been able to find more and better treatments for osteosarcoma in children and young adults,” Dr. Slone said. “We have initial chemotherapy regimens, but it is important to find treatments that are less toxic long term and that will yield better prognoses for our patients with more advanced disease. I asked the team to incorporate an osteosarcoma model into the experiments involving the dendritic cell vaccine, so that we could see if this potentially could be another treatment someday. All treatments start in the lab, and then hopefully, can transition to clinical trials for patients. That was my favorite project because ultimately, we need to find better treatments and more treatments other than just chemotherapy for all of our pediatric cancers.”
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While the challenge of difficult-to-treat cancers excites Dr. Slone, it was always the people and the relationships that drew Dr. Slone to medicine, as well as pediatric hematology/oncology.
“I really enjoy the relationships that I develop with my patients in oncology,” Dr. Slone said. “You really get to know the children and their families, and it’s just such a privilege and a joy to care for them.”
Dr. Slone acknowledges that physicians often sacrifice some of their personal lives in pursuit of medicine, but for her it is a higher calling.
“It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice,” Dr. Slone said. “It’s worth every moment you’re away from your family or your home because you know what you’re doing is more than worthwhile.”
According to Dr. Slone, she often feels “mama bear maternal” about her patients, wanting to do everything in her power to help families navigate the journey of cancer.
“While they’re going through this, I want to help protect them and keep them as healthy and as safe as I can,” Dr. Slone said. “Caring for these children is very important to me. I will do everything in my power to give my patients and their families 100% of my time and the best that we have at Norton Children’s Cancer Institute.”