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These 2 Young Survivors & 4 Cancer Researchers Could Change Everything

May 12, 2016Posted by Terry Turner

Most children have a naturally positive attitude about the future.

But the youthful optimism shown by 12-year-old cancer survivor Hannah Adams is especially remarkable, which is why she and fellow survivor Ryan Darby, also 12, will spend most of their summer visiting other children undergoing treatment for the types of cancer they survived.

“I feel like we’re giving them hope,” she says.

The duo are serving as this year’s youth ambassadors for Hyundai Hope on Wheels (HHOW), a foundation dedicated to fighting childhood cancers. Recently, the organization allocated $1M each to four organizations and researchers they believe to be on the cusp of reaching major breakthroughs in the cure for childhood cancer.

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Ryan Darby and Hannah Adams, 2016 HHOW Youth Ambassadors (Credit: HHOW)

Only about 4% of federal spending on cancer research actually goes toward fighting pediatric cancers; yet, every day, 36 children in America are diagnosed with cancer, and while about 80 percent of cancer cases are cured these days, the disease in its various forms remains the leading cause of death by disease among children in the U.S.

To bridge that gap, the South Korean car-maker Hyundai teamed with some of its dealers in New England in 1998 to create HHOW, a foundation whose mission has always been to specifically address the needs of childhood cancer research. Nearly 18 years later, every Hyundai dealership in the U.S. has joined with contributions, and HHOW has given $115 million in grants to cancer researchers. Last month, HHOW awarded four separate, one million dollar Quantum grants to researchers targeting childhood cancers.

“It’s a really exciting time for this kind of research,” said Dr. Marie Bleakley of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, one of the four research teams to receive a grant.

WIth a focus on Pediatric Leukemia, Dr. Bleakley has been working alongside Dr. Soheil Meshinchi studying ways to use T-cells as a form of immunotherapy and effectively enhancing the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells. T-cells are part of the normal immune system and have the ability to recognize cancer cells, which is why the team believes they can be used to treat patients where chemotherapy sometimes fails.

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Dr. Marie Bleakley, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, 2016 HHOW Quantum Grant recipient (Credit: HHOW)

“Pediatric Leukemia is very often curable,” she said, “but there forms that are resistant to chemotherapy or become resistant, which ultimately lead to relapse and problems for the patient.”

By finding ways to expand the T-cells that can spot cancer, expand their numbers in the laboratory, then reintroduce them into a patient, she hopes to be able to boost the naturally occurring effect for patients that are resistant to chemotherapy.

“Eventually, we’d like to use more cell-based therapies and less toxic forms of chemotherapy and radiation,” Dr. Bleakley explained, “so that not only are we preventing relapses, but also we’re protecting from long-term effects of the treatments.”

$1 million dollar grants also went to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Dr. Richard Aplenc, MD, PhD, MSCE, and to Dr. Duane A. Mitchell, MD, PhD at the University of Florida.

The final doctor to receive the HHOW Quantum grant is Dr. Loren Walensky of The Walensky Laboratory and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, who is exploring the mechanics that cause pediatric Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) to be resistant to some treatments. He’s focused on a specific protein — p53 — which can suppress tumors by preventing cancer cells from growing and dividing too fast, or in an uncontrolled way, thus protecting the genome.

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Dr. Loren Walensky of The Walensky Laboratory and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, HHOW Quantum Grant Recipient (Credit: HHOW)

“Protecting the genome from damage is not something that cancer cells want,” Dr. Walensky said. “They actually want to create havoc in the genome.”

P53 can effectively open a “death pathway” for cancer cells, but it faces two enemies — a pair of proteins called HDM2 and HDMX. The first tracks down and destroys p53, the second binds p53 and keeps it from doing its cancer-killing role. Dr, Walensky’s laboratory has been recreating the part of p53 that interacts with the two negative regulators, and using it against them by creating what he calls a “synthetic decoy” that effectively sends HDM2 and HDMX on a wild goose chase, attacking the those decoys and allowing p53 to escape them and target cancer cells.

Like Dr. Bleakley, Dr. Walensky believes it’s an exciting time to be a cancer researcher.

“It’s absolutely an era where more and more personalized information about what makes a cancer cell tick in an individual is coming forward,” he said. “We can now say, ‘OK, we have the blueprint for building agents against these potential susceptibilities.’” 

Youth ambassadors Hannah and Ryan are just as excited about their role this year in boosting morale of kids fighting cancer, and, along with the doctors, have the same goal for kids with cancer.

“We want to make them feel like a regular child,” Ryan said. “I’m looking forward to seeing kids and telling them it’s going to be alright. Giving them a glimpse of hope.”

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