center profile: dr. leslie kean

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Dr. Leslie Kean

Associate Director of the Ben Towne Center 
Associate Professor at the University of Washington
Joint Associate Member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Today we have the privilege of introducing you to the new Associate Director of the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research – Dr. Leslie Kean. Leslie joined the Center last summer from Emory University. Her research focuses on improving how animal models tolerate transplanted immune cells. This could ultimately improve the odds that immunotherapy, which uses transplanted T cells, is successful in pediatric patients.

Kean received her MD/PhD from Emory University and completed her postdoctoral research, residency and fellowship in pediatrics and pediatric hematology-oncology at Emory University Hospitals and the Aflac Cancer Center and Blood Disorders Service at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

If you spent five minutes with Dr. Kean it would be clear to you how incredibly brilliant she is (I mean come on – she is a doctor/doctor!). The first time I met her I told her I wished she had been on staff when Ben was here. As a parent I would have so appreciated her warmth, humor and caring nature in wicked combination with her sharp analytics. The BTCCCR and Seattle Children’s are so lucky to have her! 

Leslie, can you give us a brief summary of what your role is at the Center?  What do you do?

At the Center, I’m the Associate Director. This means that I’m Mike’s “right hand man” for guiding the Center. I’m particularly interested in making sure our junior faculty is mentored such that they have wonderfully successful careers. I’m also very focused on developing as many synergies as we can between the investigators at the Ben Towne Center.

My work life is split between running my lab at the Ben Towne Center and being a bone marrow transplant physician at Seattle Children’s and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. I spend about 2 months per year taking care of children who are being treated with a bone marrow transplant and the rest of the time running my lab. My lab work is totally tied and inspired by the work I do clinically. My goal is to cure kids who are diagnosed with cancer, and kids who have non-malignant hematologic diseases such as sickle cell disease, thalassemia, and aplastic anemia.

How did you get into this line of work?  What motivates you in your work at the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research?

I have known I wanted to be a physician and a scientist from as early as I can remember! My dad was a scientist, and I actually began working in his lab when I was 5 years old! I worked in his lab from that young age all the way through high-school. I have always loved the feeling of being in the lab—of discovering something new, and of solving a mystery.  I also love working with people and especially, working with kids, and love the science of medicine. So being an MD and a PhD was a natural choice for me: it allows me to pursue both of my loves every day.

I am motivated every day by the patients I treat.  They drive everything I do, every day.

What do you find most rewarding (and challenging) in regards to your work at the Center?

I find working with young scientists, and mentoring them the most rewarding. I have mentored many young physicians and physician scientists, and am continuing this at the Center. It is inspiring to me to help a young person find their passion, and help them pursue it.

It is always challenging to feel you are ‘racing against the clock’ to make that next discovery that could change the lives of our patients. That feeling of “they need it now” is challenging, but it is also what drives me and my team.

What do you like to do when you aren’t at work?  How do you spend your free time? 

My favorite thing to do when I’m not at work is to be a mom! I now have two grown children!  They are 23 and 20, and I’m just now getting used to them not living at home any more, but I still spend a lot of time being their mom. This now means flying to New York City (where, just by chance, they both live: my daughter is working in a laboratory (she’s a scientist too!) and my son is in music school) to see them, and planning other adventures with the family. I also love the time I spend with my husband, doing just about anything:  hiking, biking, and reading are my favorites.

The other big project that I am very involved with and devoted to is out-reach medicine. I am the site-director for the American Society of Hematology’s project in Cambodia (at the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap) that is focused on helping train the physicians and nurses at the hospital to treat kids with cancer for the first time in that country. It is so amazing to see the brave physicians, nurses, pharmacists and social workers at the hospital take this incredible step towards curing kids in Cambodia. This has been a big year for the Angkor Hospital: In October, they treated their very first patient with cancer: a young child with retinoblastoma. This is a deeply important part of my life and one that I feel particularly honored to be a part of.

*Thank you so much Leslie for taking the time to share with us about your work at the Center.  I realize this is just scratching the surface!  We look forward to hearing more about your work in the months to come.