When Jamie Renbarger entered her freshman year at the University of Rochester in 1988, she was torn between two very different career paths: She could continue playing the violin and study to be a professional musician, or she could pursue her interest in science. “The main reason I went to Rochester is because they have a great science program and a music school, so I could do a bit of both,” she says.
By the time the school year was over, Dr. Renbarger knew she wanted to be a doctor—a choice motivated by her experience working as an emergency medical technician while attending classes. “It was my first exposure to practical, hands-on medicine, and it was exciting,” she says. “I loved being in an emergency situation and thinking on my feet.”
Dr. Renbarger thought she might like to be a surgeon or a cardiologist, so she scheduled those rotations first while in medical school. She saved the specialties that interested her the least for the end, one of which was pediatrics. “I ended up loving pediatrics,” Dr. Renbarger says. “I loved the special relationships that I developed with the patients and their families.”
Pediatrics also intrigued her because there was a wide variety of academic opportunities that would allow her to continue her interest in science. After working with a particularly inspiring pediatric hematologist-oncologist during her residency, Dr. Renbarger knew she’d found her focus. “She was an amazing physician, and I became very interested in her work with stem cell transplant patients,” she says. The experience showed her that as much as she liked the urgency of critical care, hematology-oncology would allow her to develop long-term relationships with patients as well as conduct research. “I liked that I would be able to learn so much from them and use that information to keep refining treatments,” she says.
In 2002, Dr. Renbarger joined Indiana University Health as both a staff member and student, working as a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics while completing a fellowship in clinical pharmacology. Though the Indiana native had never debated returning to the state, the fellowship was a major draw. Medication had always intrigued Dr. Renbarger, particularly the way side effects varied from patient to patient. “Some of the children I treated had no side effects, while others had significant ones that could permanently change or threaten their lives,” she says. “It got me thinking that there had to be a better way to optimize the way we use medication.”
Fourteen years later, Dr. Renbarger’s dedication to her patients and improving care has made her an internationally renowned expert in pediatric personalized medicine. She has spent her entire career at IU Health, and currently serves as the Section Chief of Hematology/Oncology at Riley Hospital for Children and the head of Riley’s pediatric precision genomics program, the only precision medicine clinical and research program devoted exclusively to children with cancer. It’s a highly personalized approach used to fight hard-to-treat cancers: Scientists study the genetics of both the patient and the tumor to help predict the effectiveness—and toxicity—of a particular drug. Though the program launched just this spring, Dr. Renbarger says the results have already been encouraging: “In about 85 to 90 percent of cases, we’ve found something clinically relevant about the patient or the tumor as a result of testing to help further guide therapy. Patients have responded remarkably well to treatment, even those who haven’t responded to many or any other therapies.”
Though Dr. Renbarger’s work can be emotionally difficult, she says it’s had a profound effect on her relationship with her two daughters. “Seeing what families go through gives me an even greater appreciation for the time I have with my own kids,” she says. They love spending time outdoors hiking, cycling, and horseback riding. “I work hard, but I’m just as focused on my family,” says Dr. Renbarger.
-- By Jessica Brown