Cancer researchers Alex Huang, Reshmi Parameswaran and Yamilet Huerta have been awarded $315,000 in grants from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation to conduct research of new immunotherapy treatments for pediatric cancers.
Huang was awarded a one-year grant to begin development of a novel biomarker that would predict clinical response for advanced muscle tumor, Rhabdomyosarcoma, using immunotherapy through cryoablation—a procedure during which ultra-cold liquid nitrogen is used to kill tumor cells and activate the patient’s immune system.
“Treatment for Rhabdomyosarcoma is aggressive, but patient outcomes are the least improved in childhood cancer,” said Huang. “With this grant, we hope to find the data we need to rapidly move from the lab to a clinical trial, making an impact for patients in the near future.”
Melissa Bonner, a second-year Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) student who started her PhD thesis work in Huang’s laboratory this summer, received a summer fellowship to investigate a class of novel drugs that targets a tumor-specific carbonic anhydrase and disrupts a sarcoma tumor’s ability to manipulate its tissue environment, thereby making immunotherapy more effective.
Parameswaran and Huerta each received funding to continue projects to create better treatments for acute myeloid leukemia (AML), the second-most common form of acute leukemia in children.
Parameswaran is an assistant professor in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the School of Medicine and member of the Hematopoietic and Immune Cancer Biology Program at the CCCC. She received a fifth year of funding for her St. Baldrick’s Scholar Award to continue to develop a new immunotherapy strategy using Natural Killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cells with potential to kill cancer cells. Parameswaran in developing a new potential therapy where NK cells from a patient are isolated in a lab and expanded to enhance cancer-fighting potential, then injected back into the patient to kill childhood AML cells.
“Successful completion of this research will lead to new clinical trials using activated NK cells as an adoptive immunotherapy for pediatric AML,” said Parameswaran.
Huerta, an instructor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine, a member of the Huang lab and a pediatric hematology/oncology fellow at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, was awarded additional fellow funding to continue her study of the use of targeted immunotherapy in future clinical trials to treat AML. She is engineering T-cells that are capable of binding to a specific target on AML cells while “engaging” neighboring T-cells, mounting an immune response and killing cancer cells.
Huerta said prognosis of a child with AML can remain poor even with chemotherapy and stem-cell treatment, but she sees promise in manipulating T-cells that are naturally part of the body’s immune system to eradicate chemo-resistant tumor cells.
The St. Baldrick’s Foundation is a volunteer-driven charity committed to funding the most promising research to find cures for childhood cancers and give survivors long and healthy lives. The foundation is the largest private funder of childhood cancer research grants and awarded new grants totaling more than $12.9 million in its summer grant cycle to support the brightest minds in the pediatric cancer field. The round of grants supports the best research at 36 institutions nationally. The foundation has given the School of Medicine and University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital more than $5.4 million to support childhood cancer research.