Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Published on 
September 15, 2016

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Anat Erdreich-Epstein prepares for her 10th year biking in the triathlon that supports her cancer research

Anat Erdreich-Epstein, MD, PhD, doesn’t get to train as much as she’d like to for the Nautica Malibu Triathlon. She bikes on the weekends when possible, but she has to fit it in around her life’s work—helping science get closer to a cure for cancer.

“It really depends how much work I have,” she says. “Many of these weekends I am busy writing grants or doing other work and can’t do it.”

A pediatric oncologist and researcher at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, she’s actually busy doing the very work that the Nautica Malibu Triathlon supports. Her research focuses on the biology of cancer.

“I am concentrating on brain cancer,” says Epstein. “My research attempts to understand aspects in children’s brain cancer and, based on that biology, improve treatments or create new treatments. We are currently working on a gene that we have found is highly linked to better survival for patients with brain cancer, and we are trying to understand how it works, in order to use this knowledge to create new drugs that will mimic it.”

She likens cancer research to a pyramid. “The top of the pyramid is when the treatment goes to patients. But you have to build the base underneath it, and that is a much larger and very costly endeavor that requires tremendous effort by multiple researchers over many years. Everybody wants to fund the top of the pyramid—funding to the base is much more difficult.”

She emphasizes the importance of understanding the biological origins of cancer, at the base of the pyramid. “The only way we are going to make any headway in improving treatment for any disease is by understanding its biology.”

Ten years ago, when Epstein was asked to speak at corporate triathlon team meetings to help motivate the fundraisers, she thought, If they can do it, why not me? So her husband fitted her with one of his old bikes and off she went. She has been manning the bike leg of a triathlon relay team ever since. You can locate her on race day by her giant sun hat (after she removes her helmet, of course).

She downplays the importance of her participation, fearing that raising money to support her own research might look self-serving—though fundraising for cancer research, even if that cancer research is your own, is anything but self-serving.

Though she has little free time to bike, she stays active in other ways, such as using the treadmill/standing desk in her office. She also almost exclusively takes the stairs wherever she goes, including between her office and laboratory on the fifth floor of the Smith Research Tower, to The Saban Research Building, and to the fourth floor of CHLA’s Marion and John E. Anderson Pavilion, where she cares for patients.

Epstein personally raises a couple of thousand dollars each year, making email appeals to friends and colleagues throughout the year and tracking her requests via spreadsheet to avoid asking anyone for more than one donation per year. She starts off each year by putting in her own donation, and donates to many of the other participants as well.

“This money allows us to make important progress in our research,” she says. “Research funding is extremely difficult to come by these days and insufficient funding is a major obstacle that limits how fast research can move forward. It is a huge bottleneck, and support from the Nautica Malibu Triathlon helps make that bottleneck a little bit wider.” 

To help support CHLA's pediatric cancer research, visit the Nautica Malibu Triathlon fundraising page.