Big Ideas

Patrick Brown, M.D.

As more funding leads to more research, we continue to see improvements in treatments for many types of cancer. However, these benefits haven’t reached all cancer patients equally. For example, children who are diagnosed with leukemia have a much higher chance for survival than they did even a decade ago, but infants with leukemia don’t have the same rate of success. While overall cure rates for children with leukemia are nearly 90%, the cure rates for infants with leukemia is much lower, near 40%. The disease is much rarer in infants, but also much harder to treat.

This difference has led Patrick Brown, M.D., and his team at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, to focus on what could potentially be the cause of this sizable gap.

“We have discovered that these leukemias in infants may be harder to cure because the cancer cells have abnormal ways of organizing their DNA, called ‘epigenetics,’” said Brown. “We want to understand this better so that we can develop new treatments that will reverse this abnormal DNA organization and make the leukemia easier to cure.”

Traditionally, scientists have tended to focus on how mutations, or changes in DNA sequence, can lead to cancer. Brown and his team are focused on a new area of research that suggests some cancers, such as infant leukemia, may be driven not by the DNA’s sequence but by how it is structured, affecting which genes are turned on and which are turned off.

Instead of searching for another solution by traditional methods, they are opting for something bold and cutting-edge. They aren’t looking for the key to open the front door; they are busting through the wall.

“This research expands our understanding of how cancer can adapt and survive despite our efforts to kill it with chemotherapy, and points the way toward new treatment approaches to prevent the cells from becoming resistant to treatment,” said Brown. “We are hopeful that more babies with leukemia will be successfully treated and cured as a result of this research.”

There is still much to be discovered, because cases are relatively rare and there has not been much research focused in this area. That’s why the V Foundation grant, funded by the Dick Vitale Gala, was so critical. Traditional funding mechanisms often cannot support projects focused on highly innovative research or that focus on rare cancers like infant leukemia. That’s why supporting the V Foundation is critical to making sure cancer research benefits all patients.

I can say with certainty that this research could not have been conducted without the support of the V Foundation. It was of the utmost important in moving this line of research forward, and I could not be more grateful for this support.

Patrick Brown, M.D.