Clinic and research: One to make her happy, one to make her curious

Sevgi Köstel Bal: "As a clinician you are personally affected, which motivates you to do research." (c) Ian Ehm

(12.02.2020) Sevgi Köstel Bal, MD, PhD, is one of St. Anna Children’s Cancer Research Institute’s most dedicated young scientists. Her recent publication shows how the cure rate of cancer in children with a rare inborn immune defect may be improved (https://bit.ly/3tennJ7). Here, she explains why she needs research in her life, although it lacks the instant reward of clinical work.

Before she came to Vienna, Sevgi Köstel Bal (36) used to work as a pediatric immunologist at Ankara University School of Medicine. “Back then we had several children with primary immuno-deficiencies, predisposing them to cancer. I was working in the leading bone marrow transplant center of the country, which had a high success rate however some of research facilities were not available.” This is why she strived to do research on her patient´s diseases to understand the molecular mechanisms of primary immuno-deficiencies. “To improve our research background, my institute already had a collaboration with Dr. Kaan Boztug, and I was coordinating it there, then we decided to conduct a project together.” It was more than two years ago, when she began working as a postdoctoral scientist in the group of Kaan Boztug, MD, at St. Anna Children’s Cancer Research Institute. 

On the way for a global language

In a global collaborative approach, Sevgi Köstel Bal and Kaan Boztug analyzed the clinical and immunological features as well as the treatment response in the largest group of children with CD27 or CD70 deficiency to date. “Our results highlight a marked predisposition to lymphoma in this patient group. Actually, if diagnosed at an early stage, the majority of these kids is responsive to hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.”

The study included centers all over the world, among them also Turkish Institutes. “For them I also serve as a mediator, like a bridge or connecting person, as Turkish is my first language. People like me are important for my country to transfer knowledge and improve the academic field.”

Besides acting as a facilitator for local clinicians, Sevgi Köstel Bal also is involved in a project running in St Anna Children’s Cancer Research Institute to create a global language for immunodeficiencies that is understandable by every clinician: “Together with other study groups we try to classify the Human Phenotype Ontology for Immunodeficiencies – an effort to form a universal language.”

The satisfying part of pediatrics

Besides that, Sevgi Köstel Bal is working on the identification of single gene disorders that predispose individuals to cancer at an early age. Working exclusively in the lab, from time to time she misses her patients. “As a clinician you are personally affected, which motivates you to do research for the benefit of the patient. This was actually the trigger for my career as a scientist.”
“When doing only research you have to be very patient to see your achievement. In the clinic, you immediately observe therapeutic effects. The patient becomes healthier and that makes you happy. Therefore, I want the clinic to remain a part of my life. To satisfy my curiosity though, I need research, which can answer open questions. But science always needs questions to be fed with and this comes from the clinical side.”

Seeking answers: always on my mind

At St. Anna CCRI, the scientist has found a very supporting community. “In our lab there are many people like me, coming from abroad creating a diverse and exciting atmosphere. I feel like I am blessed with not only colleagues, but also friends in my working community. That’s why I really love being here.” If there was anything in Vienna she did not like? “Maybe the grey weather in winter kind of bothers me. I also miss the original Turkish food. You do not get it here, even though Vienna has plenty of options when it comes to food.”

Can a scientist ever leave the lab behind and stop thinking about research questions? “Sometimes on vacation or during very exciting times I forget about it. But in general, I carry the questions with me”, says Sevgi Köstel Bal. “If I couldn’t solve a mathematical problem in high school I was not able to sleep. And so, it continues today. As soon as I find an answer for one problem, another question will come up to bother me. I just keep asking questions and they will always be on my mind.”

About Sevgi Köstel Bal, MD, PhD

Since 2018, Sevgi Köstel Bal, MD, PhD, is a post-doctoral researcher in the group of Kaan Boztug, MD, on “Immune Deficiency, Cancer Predisposition & Precision Oncology” at St. Anna Children’s Cancer Research Institute.

The scientist earned her degree as a medical doctor at Hacettepe University in Ankara, where she graduated with a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology (Mentor: Prof. Hayat Erdem-Yurter). She completed her Residency Training in Pediatrics at Hacettepe University, mentored by Prof. Dr. Bilgehan Yalçın, and continued her career as a Clinical Research Fellow at the Ankara School of Medicine, Department of Pediatric Immunology (Mentor: Prof Aydan Ikinciogullari and Figen Dogu). Among others, Sevgi Köstel Bal has first-authored publications in high-ranked journals such as Blood and Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Youngstar 1-2/2021