Featured Researcher — Diana Thomas, MD, PhD

Featured Researcher — Diana Thomas, MD, PhD 150 150 Katie Brind'Amour, PhD, MS, CHES

Diana Thomas, MD, PhD, joined the Biopathology Center (BPC) at Nationwide Children’s Hospital as its pathology operations director in 2021. Since then, she has been busy supporting research protocol development and the receipt, processing, banking and distribution of biospecimens for clinical and research investigators around the world. As a biorepository for some of the largest cancer research groups in the world, including the National Cancer Institute-funded Children’s Oncology Group (COG), NRG Oncology-Columbus and SWOG Cancer Research Network (formerly Southwest Oncology Group), the biobanking effort at Nationwide Children’s receives hundreds of specimens each day to process for clinical analysis, storage or research, as well as dozens of requests for distribution to investigators.

Dr. Thomas makes sure these processes run smoothly by working closely with the BPC Histopathology and Digital Pathology groups. She reviews the pathology of biospecimens for quality control to ensure the proper sample types are distributed to researchers. She is also a practicing pediatric neuropathologist, serving as the associate director of neuropathology at Nationwide Children’s, and works on her own research projects as time allows.

One of Dr. Thomas’s most exciting new endeavors may be her work to enhance digital pathology capabilities at Nationwide Children’s. In her capacity as co-director of digital pathology, she is working to construct a clinical program with the field’s leading digital imaging systems and analysis software, which she believes will improve the efficiency of diagnostics, clinician collaboration, education and research. Dr. Thomas expects that this technology revolution, together with innovative machine learning approaches, will lead to groundbreaking advancements in the fields of oncology and pathology in the near future — and feels Nationwide Children’s will be well-positioned at the forefront of this movement, thanks to its expert clinical pathology teams and the BPC.

Read on to learn more about Dr. Thomas and her work.

How did you decide to pursue a career in your field?

My doctorate work focused on evaluating combinations of immunotherapies for brain tumors using mouse models. As I pursued my medical training, I realized I wanted to understand disease at the cellular and molecular level in a more personalized, patient-focused way. After spending many hours at a microscope observing T cells, natural killer (NK) cells and macrophages infiltrating — and in some cases eliminating — brain tumors, I decided to become a neuropathologist.

I wanted to better understand what I was seeing in the brain so I could figure out how to improve anti-tumor immune responses. Even now, I find this area of neuropathology fascinating. I like to work on projects characterizing newly recognized classes of brain tumors and the innate and adaptive immune responses that occur in the central nervous system.

What was your path to your current role?

I spent a few years practicing neuropathology and working on various research projects before I was recruited to the BPC by Nilsa Ramirez, MD, the center’s director. The BPC is one of the largest and most comprehensive biobanking organizations in the country, with decades of experience handling complex projects. I was drawn to the opportunity to engage in a wide variety of research efforts in a new way: supporting clinical trials through biobanking. I work most closely with the Histopathology Core and Digital Pathology.

Why did you decide to pursue your work at Nationwide Children’s?

I value the mission of Nationwide Children’s and the Abigail Wexner Research Institute and the people here. I thoroughly enjoy our collaborative approach to research and patient care and working with dedicated and supportive colleagues across Nationwide Children’s. Hospital leadership has also invested in resources that enable our faculty and staff to do cutting-edge work.

How does your research serve our patients and our community?

The BPC aims to impact patient care through the procurement, processing, banking and distribution of  high-quality, annotated biospecimens for use in research and clinical decision making around the world. I try to remove barriers and facilitate these research efforts using my pathology expertise.

One of the biggest projects I have been involved with to date is the Molecular Characterization Initiative, a collaborative effort between the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), COG, BPC and the Steve and Cindy Rasmussen Institute for Genomic Medicine at Nationwide Children’s to provide comprehensive genomic profiling of tumors for any child with cancer who enrolls in COG’s Project:EveryChild. This effort recently launched and will undoubtedly transform the access physicians and patients have to comprehensive molecular profiling for individualized oncologic care and support important research for childhood cancer.

What’s next? What do you hope to accomplish in your research and professional development going forward?

I am really excited about the opportunities offered by digital pathology and its use with artificial intelligence, or machine learning. We don’t even know just how much information can be hidden in images! Digital pathology is already routinely utilized in the BPC. Once we go fully digital, will be able to share them more easily, mark them up on a computer screen, and most importantly, compare large collections of samples to identify patterns.

Fun Facts About Dr. Thomas

What do you usually eat for breakfast?

Oatmeal and coffee. Lots of coffee.

What would be your dream job if you could do anything (that wasn’t working in research)?

I would love to do something — just about anything! — that gets me outdoors more.

Favorite Food?

Dark chocolate.

Favorite way to relax?

Spending time with my family and friends. I love to enjoy a good meal together and then take a walk somewhere scenic.

Favorite thing you’ve bought this year?

We bought a hybrid electric car. It’s fun to drive, and I love not going to the gas station weekly!

Even better, automated technology could help us count cells or cell features more accurately and find subtle connections between different tumor types that might not be apparent to the human eye.

This work will require a significant investment, but Nationwide Children’s is committed to advancing our clinical pathology capabilities. We will soon have one of only a few pediatric digital pathology clinical workflows in the country. Having digitized catalogs of specimen images from all types of tumors could enable rapid advancements in pediatric oncology and pathology and would be a major advantage for both clinical care and research.

About the author

Katherine (Katie) Brind’Amour is a freelance medical and health science writer based in Pennsylvania. She has written about nearly every therapeutic area for patients, doctors and the general public. Dr. Brind’Amour specializes in health literacy and patient education. She completed her BS and MS degrees in Biology at Arizona State University and her PhD in Health Services Management and Policy at The Ohio State University. She is a Certified Health Education Specialist and is interested in health promotion via health programs and the communication of medical information.