Last year, if you had told Dr. Mignon Loh that she would soon become the leader of cancer care and research at Seattle Children’s, no one would have been more surprised than her. As chief of pediatric oncology at the University of California, San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospitals, she was caring for children with cancer and leading breakthrough research at one of the world’s most renowned medical institutions. Then Seattle Children’s contacted her and outlined our vision – and we were thrilled that it immediately caught her attention.
“I wasn’t looking to leave UCSF, but I was intrigued because Seattle Children’s was thinking big,” Loh said. “They were committed to building innovative facilities to augment their research footprint, they wanted to reimagine wet and dry bench research as part of their alliance with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington, and they were clearly on a mission to improve cancer and blood diseases care for children worldwide. The opportunity was too good to pass up.”
We’re ecstatic that Loh joined Seattle Children’s in December, and is leading the Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and directing the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. She is also division chief of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology, Bone Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapy at the University of Washington School of Medicine and heads the Section of Pediatric Oncology at Fred Hutch.
“Seattle Children’s has an amazing history, and their immunotherapy work is groundbreaking,” Loh said. “I’m excited to build on that and make an even bigger difference for the kids who are afflicted with blood diseases and cancers who need better treatments and cures.”
A decades-old connection to Seattle Children’s
Loh’s interest in pediatric oncology started while she was attending Columbia University Medical School.
“I knew I wanted to care for patients and do research,” she said. “With pediatric oncology, I was excited that the bench was so close to the bedside. And the patients and families were so heroic, despite going through things that no human being should ever have to go through.”
Her connection to Seattle Children’s started during her fourth year of medical school when she completed a pediatric oncology rotation under Dr. Irwin “Irv” Bernstein.
“It was November, and it was really rainy – it was the year the I-90 floating bridge sank,” Loh remembers. “Irv and everyone at Seattle Children’s were pretty incredible—I still remember some of the patients I took care of that month. I loved it here and was interested in returning for my residency. But I ‘couples matched’ with my boyfriend, and we didn’t end up having the opportunity to land in Seattle. But we’ve been married for almost 25 years now, and I’m back in Seattle, so it all worked out in the end!”
Using research to understand cancer genetics
After doing her pediatric internship at UCSF followed by her residency in Boston, Loh completed a fellowship in pediatric hematology and oncology at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
Then she returned to UCSF, where she spent more than two decades caring for children with cancer and building a renowned lab. Her lab works to understand the genes involved in leukemia, making discoveries that could translate into better tests and treatments for juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML) and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Loh chairs the ALL committee in the Children’s Oncology Group. She has published more than 230 peer-reviewed publications, many of which are in high profile journals. Her work has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the St. Baldrick’s Foundation and others.
Loh’s arrival at Seattle Children’s coincides with the push to extend the reach of the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research, adding to its ongoing immunotherapy and cancer biology work. This enables closer collaboration by researchers in different areas, accelerating progress toward cures. This is enhanced by our expanded research partnership with Fred Hutch and the University of Washington.
“Being integrated with Fred Hutch and the UW will enable us to pursue bigger, more impactful research projects and grants and will shorten the bridge between clinical care and research,” Loh said. “That means we’ll be able to make more advances available to patients more quickly than ever – everything from clinical trials to new diagnostic tests.”
Goal: improve health equity
One of Loh’s many goals is to dedicate more research to addressing health equity issues. For example, blood disorders such as sickle cell anemia and thalassemia disproportionately affect Black and Asian populations.
“Hemoglobinopathies like sickle cell affect more people worldwide than cancer or any other hematologic issue,” Loh said. “We hope to add researchers and partner with other institutes to understand these disorders and bring better therapies to patients. It’s an example of how we can think bigger than cancer, in ways that could help children around the world.”
A new care paradigm
On the clinical side, Loh looks forward to seeing patients in Seattle and uncovering more ways to improve care.
“It’s always about the patients for me,” she said. “Not only caring for them but learning from them – examining how their cancer cells are wired differently from healthy cells; asking what those cells can tell us about their unique diagnosis, potential prognosis and response to therapy; and using that information to identify new therapies and move them into clinical trials.”
Seattle Children’s care will take another leap forward when our new patient facility, Building Care, opens in summer 2022.
The Cancer and Blood Disorders Center outpatient clinic will be located there. The Blood and Marrow Transplant Clinic for pediatric outpatient services will also move to Building Care from its current home at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
“Building Care is going to be amazing – patients will receive all the care they need in the same room, instead of shuttling to different appointments in different places,” Loh said. “It’s a new paradigm, and it shows how Seattle Children’s is at the forefront of improving the patient experience.”
How building a research lab is like starting a garden
Loh is more than just a leading doctor and scientist. She’s an art lover who majored in art history as an undergraduate. She’s a proud mom who had to interrupt a recent Zoom meeting to pull Christmas cookies from the oven. And she’s a foodie and avid gardener who sees parallels between growing vegetables and building a successful research enterprise.
“There’s a real science starting a garden. You need a strong foundation made of the right combination of soils. You need plants that complement each other. The watering has to be perfect. The right balance of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients have to be balanced throughout the growing season. Everything comes together to encourage each plant to flourish and bloom,” Loh said. “The same is true of a lab – when you find the right people and put them in the right positions and provide the right support, magic happens. For us, that magic is making insights that make life better for kids with cancer. And we’ll hopefully be seeing a lot of that at Seattle Children’s in the years ahead.”