June, 2024
June 2024
Oncothon: Pediatric oncology with Maria Babak, Jemma Arakelyan
May 26, 2024, 14:54

Oncothon: Pediatric oncology with Maria Babak, Jemma Arakelyan

Oncothon is a telethon spanning 24 hours, dedicated to gathering donations for childhood cancer research.

Prof. Babak is an assistant professor of chemistry at the City University of Hong Kong and the head of the Drug Discovery Lab at the City University of Hong Kong.

She is also a board member of the Institute of Cancer and Crisis. Dr. Jemma Arakelyan is the CEO of the Institute of Cancer and Crisis and an assistant professor in the Department of Hematology and Pediatric Oncology at Yerevan State Medical University.

Prof. Babak will introduce cancer clinical research and the activities at the City University of Hong Kong. Dr. Arakelyan will introduce the Institute of Cancer and Crisis and their activities.


Dr. Maria Babak is the Head of The Babak Lab and an Assistant Professor at the City University of Hong Kong. She earned her Ph.D. in bioinorganic chemistry from the University of Vienna in 2014. From 2015 to 2020, Dr. Babak was a postdoctoral research fellow at the National University of Singapore under the mentorship of Prof. Wee Han Ang, where she developed a strong passion for drug discovery and drug target identification.

In November 2020, she joined the City University of Hong Kong as an Assistant Professor. Dr. Babak received the Graeme Hanson-AsBIC Early Career Award in 2022.

Her research interests are at the intersection of chemistry, biology, and medicine, with a focus on the discovery and preclinical development of anticancer drugs for resistant and aggressive cancers with limited treatment options, such as malignant pleural mesothelioma and brain metastases.

Dr. Jemma Arakelyan is a medical oncologist and Ph.D. candidate at the City University of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on developing new anticancer treatments and understanding the underlying mechanisms of cancer progression. 

In addition to her academic pursuits, she is an active member of several scientific organizations, including the European School of Oncology (ESO), where she served as an ambassador in Armenia from 2020-2022. Dr. Arakelyan is also the president of the Institute of Cancer and Crisis. The Institute is dedicated to promoting awareness and support for cancer patients facing critical situations like war, pandemic, etc.


Gevorg Tamamyan is the Editor-in-chief of OncoDaily, Head of the Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Armenia, Chairman and Professor of the Department of Hematology and Pediatric Oncology at Yerevan State Medical University, Dr. Tamamyan has also been elected as the President of SIOP Asia 2024 and the Pediatric Oncology East and Mediterranean (POEM) Group.

00:00 Introduction
2:53 Maria Babak
13:56 Jemma Arakelyan
21:47 Discussion

The transcript of Oncothon: Pediatric oncology with Maria Babak, Jemma Arakelyan

Gevorg Tamamyan: Welcome back again to our global Oncothon, we are continuing our 24-hour marathon to raise funds for pediatric cancer drug development and research. With our this first global oncothon organized by OncoDaily, where this time we are supporting OncoHeroes Biosciences in their great mission.

Today is the international childhood cancer day and we are all united to fight childhood cancer globally, and today we will have many people all over the world joining us around 100 esteemed speakers from different countries and now I’m privileged to introduce our next two speakers: Professor Maria Babak.

Maria Babak Hi.

Gevorg Tamamyan: Hi, and Professor Jemma Arakelian.

Jemma Arakelyan: Hi.

Gevorg Tamamyan: So let me first introduce Dr. Babak. She is an assistant professor of chemistry at the City University of Hong Kong, and she is the head of drug discovery lab at the same university. Dr. Babak is a board member of Institute of Cancer and Crisis which aims to mitigate in the impact of cancer on cancer crisis on cancer patients. She’s a world known in the field of drug discovery and thank you very much for being with us today.

With us also is Dr. Jemma Arakelian. She’s Armenian currently, who lives in Hong Kong And she’s the CEO of Institute of Cancer and Crisis and one of our most talented medical oncologists who is a PhD now in Dr. Babak’s lab. I can talk about both of them for hours, but let me go forward and give the floor to them .

Yeah, just not to forget, Dr. Arakelian also is adjunct assistant professor with our department of Hematology and pediatric oncology at the Yerevan State Medical University in Armenia. Although she is in Hong Kong now we are trying to keep part of her in Armenia with us. I’d like first to give the floor to Professor Babak, and please share your insights about this important day and about this important cause and your ideas about the cancer drug development. Thank you very much.

Maria Babak: Thank you very much. Dr. Tamamyan and I would like to start my talk with thanking OncoDaily and you specifically, for doing such an important thing for all the cancer patients and particular pediatric cancer patients, and I think our friendship has evolved in the recent years and, I’m really, really happy to be on board and to represent fundamental and clinical research and in particular research in Hong Kong.

And I would like to tell a little bit about what we do and how we can contribute to the treatment of pediatric cancers, even though, we are not doctors, but researchers. I mentioned that we have friendship with doctors as fundamental scientists, but I would like to remind you that chemotherapy in fact was born from the friendship between a doctor and the chemist, and I would like to spend several minutes to just remind you how it happened and then, maybe, this will help to raise more funds today towards the fundamental research.

So I think that most of you here know, the name of Sydney Farber, and Sydney Farber was a clinical pathologist in Boston. He was working in a very small laboratory alone. And at some point, he was a little bit tired of being lonely there and not working with doctors nurses and patients.

In fact, he was working in the basement of the hospital and there was a lot of life happening in other floors, but he was alone and always looking in his microscope. And one day he decided to take a leap of faith, and he decided that now he will start his own research and he will work with patients finally, because that was the biggest dream of his. And so he decided to make a very serious professional switch and tackle one of the most difficult diseases at that time, and that was in 1947.

 And, what was the most difficult disease, one of the most difficult diseases? Well, obviously cancer, but a particular type of cancer, which was a childhood leukemia, and the leukemia, especially childhood leukemia, had fascinated doctors and researchers for more than a century and in fact not only fascinated, but also frustrated.

And if Farber talked to doctors about his chances to cure childhood leukemia they would really be furious with him and laugh at him, because at that time it was considered absolutely impossible and there was not much that could be offered. However, Farber was a very, very brave and ambitious man and so what he decided to do? He decided to try and see whether there can be any kind of treatments that can be used for this poor children. 

 This is where chemists come into play, because luckily for all of us in our community, Farber had a very, very good friend, and his name was Yellapragada Subbarow, and he was a biochemist and in fact, he came to Harvard with a scholarship, but It didn’t work out and so he moved to the company, which was called “Leather left”, and he was working on the development of the antifolates analogs. And this antifolates they could really work like a original folate, but with the opposite action.

So instead of turning the supply on, they would really be like a wrong key in the lock and they would turn off the supply. Eventually, Sidney Farber knew a lot about the research on foliates from other doctors, medical doctors, and he decided to give a folic acid to the leukemia patients in particular children, and when he got one child come to him one day to his lab, he actually administered the folic acid and unfortunately, it had a very, very bad consequence, because cancer even progressed. So it even began to develop faster. 

This could be the end of the chemotherapy and cancer research, especially childhood leukemia research. But Farber looked at it as an opportunity. So if we can  actually accelerate cancer with the folate, what if we use a so-called anti-folate?

And this is where, he remembered about one of his best friends and he said, okay this is exactly what you are doing. You are working in the lab and you are developing the antifolates. So why don’t you ship me the package with the anti-folate and I will administer it in one of the patients? This is what happened, they quickly synthesized the folate analog and they shipped it to Sidney Farber, and within two weeks the package arrived, and Farber administered it to the patient. 

Interestingly, there was a very, very significant effect. Maybe some of you know the drug aminopterin and the patient really could have a very, very good life. Unfortunately of course, he relapsed, but he was in remission for quite a long time, and this was the birth of the chemotherapy. 

And I would like to say that fundamental research is extremely important for the future treatment of cancer, because as my example shows, the friendship between a doctor, in fact pathologist, and a medicinal chemist or biochemist led to the birth of chemotherapy. 

I would like to talk about raising money for fundamental research or clinical research. Well, raising money is never easy, but it’s especially difficult when you’re trying to raise money in the area of drug discovery and drug development, especially if you’re not a part of a big pharma company and especially, if you work in academia. So raising money for drug discovery and drug development is extremely tough, and I would like discuss some of the problems in this money-raising, because there is, first of all, a lot of competition. 

There are a lot of important projects, and everybody is trying to get the same slice of funding pie. However, some of this research is really, really important, and there is always hope for young researchers and young professors like us, that we can also take a little bit of this funding pie. That’s why we are extremely supportive of this initiative today, and we really hope that at the end of this event, there will be enough funding raised for this very promising drug, and that maybe it will help some patients the way that Farber and his friend helped patients many years ago. 

Also, besides the competition, the fundamental and clinical research can take a lot of time, and unfortunately, it’s very complicated. And this can put some people off who might otherwise could invest. So, you don’t expect quick results, you expect some slow and maybe sometimes painful road. But really, at the end, there will be some reward.

So, I really urge people to support fundamental and clinical research in the area of drug discovery and drug development and, of course, it will help to fight cancer in future. It is extremely hard to get enough money, and unfortunately, if we do not get money, this will extremely slow down the important research work. So that’s why we really should unite and do this together, and even a small investment also matters. 

Just to finish this talk, I would like to say several words about our lab. So, we work in City University of Hong Kong, and CTU and our lab, in particular, are very interested in collaborations between medical doctors, biochemists, biologists, and medicinal chemists. I think that there should not be a gap between us because very often doctors do not think well of chemists.

Even in the 17th century, chemists were considered by doctors like very, very ignorant and arrogant people. We are not, and we really would like to help. So, I think that we really should unite, and we should not underestimate the work of doctors, and doctors should also appreciate that we, as fundamental researchers, are willing to help. 

So to finish this talk, let’s unite and let’s try to raise as much money as possible because this will really help to beat cancer in future. Thank you very much. 

Gevorg Tamamyan: Thank you so much, Professor Babak, for your wonderful talk and for bringing this very nice story about Sydney Farber and the discovery of methotrexate. I also usually like to bring this story up, because the treatment of cancer started from pediatric leukemias and, in general, but during history later on, pediatric cancer drug development kind of was neglected and is neglected right now.

That’s why I think it’s important regarding the collaboration between the basic scientists and doctors. I 100% agree with all your comments and there, you know, there is a hypothesis that the white coat, lab coat doctors got from the scientists at the end of the 19th century this way, trying to show that medicine is a scientific discipline. That’s why I think it’s inevitable to have this collaboration. Thank you very much.

Maria Babak: Thank you.

Gevorg Tamamyan: And I’d like also to give the floor to Dr. Jemma Arakelian. I’m sure whatever I say about Jemma, Professor Babak also is going to prove my words. Jemma is one of the most brilliant minds we have, and I’m sure she’s going to be the superstar of oncology in the global field. She’s the CEO of the Institute of Cancer and Crisis, and under her leadership, the institute really made huge developments recently. 

Besides being a great oncologist, she’s a wonderful person and a great leader. And now she’s working also in the basic research lab, so trying to bring the perspective and learn the perspective also on the basic science and bring this up. Dr. Arakelian, I would like to ask you to talk about the work you are doing through the Institute of Cancer and Crisis and thanks for being with us today, please, the floor is yours.

Jemma Arakelyan: Professor Tamamyan, thanks a lot for your kind words and kind introduction and greetings to all the participants from around the world who have joined our live stream today, as Dr. Tamamyan mentioned, I am the CEO currently of the Institute of Cancer and Crisis and originally from Armenia, a medical oncologist. And currently, I’m conducting anti-cancer research in the drug discovery lab at the City University of Hong Kong.

So 15th of February is the International Childhood Cancer Day, and today we come together with a shared goal. OncoDaily and Oncoheroes Biosciences organized this telethon to raise funds for finding cure for pediatric cancer patients. And I want to talk on behalf of the Institute of Cancer and Crisis and I want to extend our full support for this Oncothon.

 Also, using this opportunity, I would like to provide you with some insight into the Institute of Cancer and Crisis. So basically, our institute was founded in the Republic of Armenia in 2021. We have three primary goals:

First of all, it’s raising awareness about the challenges that hinder cancer prevention, care and diagnosis in settings impacted by crisis. 

Secondly, we want to investigate and mitigate the impact of crisis on cancer patients and their access to essential care and conduct research and engage, of course, in advocacy initiatives to advance knowledge and promote effective interventions in this particular area. 

So at ICC, our team includes highly respected professionals from diverse fields, including oncology, public health, social sciences and cancer policy. Together, we possess a vast amount of knowledge and experience which allows us to effectively address the complex challenges faced by cancer patients and advocate for their needs in challenging situations. 

Through our projects and research initiatives and interviews with experts, our goal is to shed light on the impact of crisis on cancer patients and find ways to minimize these effects. We achieve this by sharing personal experiences, fostering collaborative relationships with cancer centers and experts and developing common strategies. Our ultimate aim is to ensure that cancer patients receive adequate care during and after times of crisis. 

So at ICC, we understand the immense difficulties faced by those engaged in the battle against cancer, especially if you are talking about pediatric cancer. The psychological toll on children with cancer is intense as they face increased anxiety and distress.

 Socio-economic challenges also are there, making it difficult for families to afford necessary medications and support services. So I want to mention also that last year, the Institute of Cancer and Crisis, together with OncoDaily, organized the first Global Summit on War and Cancer. Over the course of three days from December 14 to 16, 2023, this summit brought together individuals and organizations dedicated to the fight against cancer in areas affected by conflict.

During our summit, we heard from many different speakers, including doctors, scientists, policy makers, influential advocates who discussed the urgent challenges faced by cancer patients in conflict-afflicted regions like Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh and more. Around 50 countries were represented during the summit, and hundreds of participants attended it. 

So Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, and Princess Dina Mired of Jordan, the Honorary President of the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer, gave the opening speeches. 

During our event and throughout the summit, we had different meaningful discussions, and we shared best practices and formed partnerships to improve cancer care in conflict-affected areas. Please join us during the second Global Summit on War and Cancer as we are hopeful that we will organize the second one soon as well. 

The Oncotelethon presents a unique opportunity for all of us now to join together and contribute to a cause that holds profound significance. So I want us to unite our efforts and make changing the lives of children who fight cancer each day.

 So, I’m challenging each and every one of you to actively participate in this telethon, because your support and doesn’t matter like the size or form of it. It can be through financial contributions, it can be spreading awareness or volunteering your valuable time will have a direct and profound impact on the lives of children battling cancer.

 So, I want to extend my deepest gratitude to OncoDaily and Oncoheroes Biosciences for their admirable efforts in organizing this remarkable event and for their commitment to raising essential funds for pediatric cancer research. Because now I see, that this is the type of crisis now pediatric cancer research really lacks of funds.

 So together, let us make this Oncothon an extraordinary success, so no child has to face cancer alone in the future. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to talk during this Oncothon. 

Gevorg Tamamyan: Thank you very much, Jemma. Thanks a lot for your very interesting and very inspiring speech. Just one quick question came to my mind, and I think this question is for both of you:

What’s the most challenging between the two of you working in, like, and bringing the different perspectives in the same lab? 

Jemma Arakelyan: Maybe Professor Babak will answer first?

Maria Babak: Okay, okay, I’ll answer first. I think from my perspective, the most important is to convince the grantors and the investors, that fundamental research is really important and the biggest problem, the biggest difference between our work and the work of doctors is that you cannot see the results immediately. So sometimes we have failures, sometimes we need to repeat experiments many times, and sometimes at the end of one or two years of research, we are still at the preclinical stage. 

So from my experience, very often, grantors expect that this fundamental research will very quickly result in the drug being in clinics, and this is impossible. So I think we should really change the stigma on this research, and fundamental research is really important, and we should really bridge the gap between thinking of medical doctors and researchers in the lab. 

Gevorg Tamamyan: Thank you

Jemma Arakelyan: So as Professor Babak mentioned previously, in my opinion, indeed, there is a huge gap between basic science and clinical work that we usually do in clinics, and actually, I’m so thankful for this opportunity that now I have a chance to learn more about basic research, because the work that scientists are doing is amazing, but also, sometimes they need guidance from doctors to understand which part of the research is more important? which part of cancers are more challenging? like what to be concentrated on?

So there is this gap between basic scientists and between like clinic, that I think needs to be fulfilled and as Professor Babak mentioned previously, we really need to work together. Only in that case, there can be these breakthroughs in drug discovery, because we need each other. We are not competing , we need each other to make progress. 

Gevorg Tamamyan: That’s very true, and thank you very much for that. And like Professor Babak mentioned at the beginning of her talk, bringing the story of Sydney Farber, that’s how the through the cooperation only it started, and that’s the only way I’m sure. And when we started organizing the Global Oncothon also, the idea was to bring as many stakeholders in the field we have to the table as it is possible.

That’s why we have basic scientists, we have clinical scientists, we have clinicians working in the wards, we have patients, families, survivors, advocates, foundations. And yeah, that’s very important. And pediatric cancer, in general, cancer, but also pediatric cancer is a huge challenge for our society, and I’m sure anywhere in the world we are coming, we need to be united against this disease to save one more life and to ease one more pain. 

Before closing this part of the session and moving to another one, I would like to use this opportunity to thank also our teams, working behind the scenes. We cannot see right now, but they are doing an amazing job streaming us online on different platforms and in many channels right now.

The team from OncoDaily, thank you very much. The team from Oncoheroes, thank you very much, and the team from Restream, where we are streaming, thank you very much. And I hope I didn’t forget anyone from the teams, but we still have around 22 hours, so I will have more opportunities to thank everyone.

And thank you so much to all the speakers who joined us. Thank you very much, Professor Babak. Thank you very much, Professor Arakelian, for being with us today. Have a wonderful day, and thanks for all what you are doing. Hope to see you soon. 

Jemma Arakelyan: Thank you

Maria Babak: Thank you for the invitation, Professor.