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Behind Enemy Lines: Covert Action Against Cancer

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By Sara Farris, Staff Writer

Every day, pediatric patients, families and their health care teams put on their armor to fight childhood cancer in the Children's Cancer Hospital at M. D. Anderson. While patients are receiving their treatment at the hospital, research teams are working in laboratories to find better ways to combat childhood cancer.

Recently, researchers from the Children's Cancer Hospital were selected to present their newest lines of defense at the 51st American Society of Hematology (ASH) Annual Meeting. Their weapons come in the form of drugs and antibodies, and the soldiers carrying the weapons are the patients' own immune cells.

Weapons Against Cancer

Having a children's hospital within a large cancer center benefits pediatric oncologists and patients by giving them access to an arsenal of new agents being investigated in adult cancers. This allows researchers to investigate and get the drugs to pediatric patients sooner.

Three posters presented at ASH from Children's Cancer Hospital researchers dealt with anti-cancer agents: valproic acid (VPA), amrubicin and decitabine.

•    Joya Chandra, Ph.D., and Joy Fulbright, M.D., presented their study findings on anthracyclines and their relation to cardiotoxicity in patients.
•    Shiguo Zhu, Ph.D., and Dean Lee, M.D., Ph.D., discovered that valproic acid is a STAT3 phosphorylation inhibitor. The discovery of this function may allow researchers to use VPA to target additional cancers that rely on STAT3 for growth.
•    Lisa Kopp, D.O., and Lee found a drug commonly used against acute leukemia had a negative impact on a patient's immune cells when given in high doses. They are now investigating the best dosage of this drug that will kill the leukemia while minimizing harm to the patient's immune cells.

An Army of Cancer Fighters

Historically, cancer therapies have consisted of administering drugs to a patient's body that kill any quickly growing cells, both normal and cancerous. This has resulted in many side effects and long-term effects for survivors.

Researchers are investigating cell therapy, which harnesses the power of a patient's own immune system, or the transfused immune cells of a donor, to attack tumors without harming healthy cells. At this year's ASH meeting, researchers from the Children's Cancer Hospital presented ways of training these armies of immune cells to be better fighters.

•    Lenka Horton and Laurence Cooper, M.D., Ph.D., have developed a laboratory procedure that supercharges T cells (immune cells) to be infused into cancer patients that could potentially decrease the risk of harsh side effects.
•    Jeffrey Friesen and Lee have designed a way to put an antibody in natural killer cells that directs the immune cells to attack acute myelogenous leukemia cells.
•    Srinivas Somanchi, Ph.D., and Lee have used a similar method to insert a different antibody into natural killer cells that directs them to attack neuroblastoma.
•    Harjeet Singh, Ph.D., and Cooper have been able to genetically modify T cells using a chimeric antigen receptor that increases the ability of T cells to last longer and grow more rapidly.
•    Cecele Denman and Lee have found a way to generate 100 times the amount of natural killer cells than the traditional, time-intensive apheresis method starting from just eight teaspoons of the donor's blood.

A Defense Strategy

With a range of therapies coming down the pipeline, pediatric oncologists are continuously studying which patients might respond best to the various options available.

Patrick Zweidler-McKay, M.D., Ph.D., from the Children's Cancer Hospital, has found a prognostic factor, absolute lymphocyte count (ALC), which may further assist physicians in strategizing what treatments to prescribe. His study, presented at ASH, looked at ALC data along with another prognostic factor, minimal residual disease, and predicted prognosis even more efficiently than using either factor alone.

Prepared for Battle
Fighting cancer requires deploying an offense from a variety of angles. The Children's Cancer Hospital has specialists dedicated to basic, translational and clinical research who report their progress at annual meetings such as ASH so that others can learn from their experience. All of the research presented is incorporated to provide patients, families and their health care teams with an arsenal of therapies and state-of-the-art technologies to face cancer and combat it head on.

Read the Full American Society of Hematology (ASH) 2009 Recap

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