student standing in front of hospital

Childhood cancer survivor conducts research at the hospital that treated him

August 29, 2022


At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, nurses recognized Spider senior Ben Pearson in the hallways. Oncologists bragged about him to colleagues. New doctors dropped by to see him in person.

Diagnosed with pediatric cancer at age 6 in that same hospital, Pearson returned over the summer for a clinical research internship with Dr. Nicole Baca, one of the oncologists treating him in recent years. Pearson is the primary author of a study that will be submitted to the peer-reviewed medical journal Pediatric Blood and Cancer by the end of September.

“The doctors said people in infectious disease have read part of my manuscript because it came out really well,” he said. “Career-wise for me, this is amazing.”

Pearson survived acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), a common and aggressive form of pediatric cancer that causes massive cell accumulation and bone microfractures. He spent long stretches at Cedars-Sinai undergoing testing and treatment. Chemotherapy decimated his immune system to the point where catching a cold could be deadly. Every few months, doctors performed spinal taps to protect his central nervous system.

“I was diagnosed on May 8, 2007, and treated up until August 29, 2010,” Pearson said. “Since then, I’ve wanted to go into pediatric hematology and oncology.”

Most kids in his shoes would probably try to avoid the hospital, but it became his second home. At 10, doctors let Pearson draw his own blood from a peripherally inserted central catheter line. He invited his anesthesiologist to demonstrate an ultrasound machine on him in front of his classmates. By high school, he was volunteering at Cedars-Sinai and learning how to suture.

“Luckily I wasn’t too damaged by my chemotherapy,” he said. “My doctors let me get involved in my treatment, which I think is the reason why I love it so much.”

While touring campuses, University of Richmond’s healthcare-oriented opportunities and high medical school matriculation rate impressed the teen. So did learning about John Vaughan, who directs pre-health education. Attending UR during the pandemic strengthened Pearson’s professional ambitions. He completed EMT training in summer 2021 and became a clinical assistant at the Student Health Center.

For more than a decade during annual oncology checkups, Pearson kept asking his Cedars-Sinai doctors about doing cancer research. Then, in 2021, Baca told him about an internship made possible by a new grant. With Spider Internship Funds support, he began a 12-year retrospective study about chemotherapy’s effects on long-term protection from primary series vaccines.

Many chemotherapies, especially for ALL, are heavily immune-suppressing, wiping out long-term immune memory cells from common childhood vaccines for diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough, Pearson said. During his six-week internship, he collected antibody data, collaborated with a statistician at the hospital to analyze the data, and drafted the manuscript.

The hospital team plans to present their findings to the Southern California Pediatric and Adolescent Cancer Survivorship, a consortium of major hospitals. If the group decides to conduct a larger study, that might lead to new national guidelines on when and how to revaccinate pediatric cancer survivors, Pearson said.

After graduation, Pearson plans to pursue doctor of medicine and master of public health degrees. “I can’t think of work that’s more fulfilling,” he said.