The enemy: a stubborn group of cancers that strike children and cause death at a high rate despite decades of attempts to find cures.
There is a group of scientists who have made it their life’s work to know the enemy: Through DNA analysis they lay bare the genetic code of cancer cells and identify mutations that make those cells different. These mutations are potential targets for shutting down or turning off the cell.
Meanwhile, another group of scientists has worked for years to coax a prize-winning fighter, the immune system, into battle. And they have: An approach in which the patient’s own T cells are modified to attack cancer cells has shown dramatic results in relapsed leukemia beginning in 2011.
The two fields — genomics and immunotherapy — traditionally work separately. But a new grant to a team led by scientists at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is allowing for a profound change: the joining of camps.
In April, the team, led by CHOP oncologist and scientist John Maris, MD, received a prestigious “Dream Team” grant, the first in pediatric cancer research. The well-known initiative Stand Up to Cancer provides Dream Team grants for research that shows the potential to result in new treatments and cures. “We were looking for not just really good science, but something that had the potential to really change the field,” says Lee J. Helman, MD, of the National Cancer Institute, who served on the scientific advisory committee that selected the first pediatric Dream Team.
From left, John Maris, MD, Stephen Grupp, MD, PhD, and Tom Curran, PhD, help lead the Dream Team.
The CHOP grant, also funded by the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, provides $14.5 million over four years. Leading scientists in genomics and immunotherapy are now working together to identify targets on cancer cells and develop bioengineered agents, using the immune system, to attack the cancer.
Maris, who directs CHOP’s Center for Childhood Cancer Research, is joined by Stephan Grupp, MD, PhD, and Tom Curran, PhD, in leading the CHOP team. Grupp is internationally known for his work using a patient’s own immune cells to kill leukemia, while Curran is a leader in the field of brain tumor genomics and will spearhead efforts to define new immune targets in the most lethal of these cancers.
The goal is to bring the work from lab to patient as quickly as possible. “The Dream Team anticipates that if we are successful, all of the work will end up in the Children’s Oncology Group pipeline for definitive testing,” Maris says. The world’s largest organization devoted to pediatric cancer research, the Children’s Oncology Group (COG) includes more than 8,000 scientists, doctors and other experts at 200 hospitals and universities. Their collaboration means that potential new treatments can reach more children and their success can be evaluated more quickly. COG has been chaired since 2010 by CHOP oncologist Peter Adamson, MD.
The Dream Team grant unites scientists from seven institutions, showing again the remarkable ability of CHOP to lead, unite and effect change for the sake of children. “There are sets of brain tumors, sarcomas, neuroblastomas and leukemias that have completely unacceptable cure rates,” says Maris. “I’m very optimistic that this sort of thinking will lead to very new realities for children with cancer.”