Gelareh Zadeh, MD, PhD, FRCS(C)

Funded by Hockey Fights Cancer™ Powered by the V Foundation

Meningiomas are the most common intracranial tumor in adults. While most meningiomas can be successfully treated with surgery, there are a significant proportion of cases that require the addition of radiation therapy to delay tumor recurrence. However, our current methods of selecting which patients should be escalated for radiation after surgery remain relatively imprecise, especially for intermediate-grade meningiomas that can behave in a highly variable manner. Molecular profiling, specifically DNA methylation of meningiomas has proven to be an effective and efficient method of providing additional information on these tumors that can be used to better predict whether they will or will not recur after surgery. However, whether a similar set of molecular signatures exist to predict whether a meningioma of any given patient will respond to radiotherapy after surgery remain to be determined. This V Foundation grant will enable us to 1) develop a clinically important predictor using specific molecular signatures of any given patient’s meningioma to tell us whether their tumor will respond to radiation, 2) test this predictor through a novel, real-time, molecular-pathology informed clinical trial, and 3) determine if the same signatures that can prediction response to radiotherapy in the tumor tissue can be used to non-invasively provide the same information through a simple blood test. Results from this study have the potential to dramatically improve the way we treat patients with meningiomas and will represent a significant shift forward in the field of neuro-oncology.

Madeline Hayes, PhD

Funded by the Dick Vitale Pediatric Cancer Research Fund

Neuroblastoma (NB) is a type of childhood cancer that is difficult to treat after it has spread throughout the body. Using animals that develop aggressive NB, we found different types of tumor cells that may lead to cancer spread. We are proposing to look very closely at these different tumor cells and determine how they may lead to NB spread and drug resistance in patients. We will also test new targeted drugs for their effects on NB spread and through our studies, new ways to treat aggressive childhood cancer may be found.

Sushant Kumar, PhD

Vintner Grant funded by the V Foundation Wine Celebration in honor of Leslie Rudd and Family

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death across the globe. Early cancer detection can facilitate effective treatment and fewer side effects to improve patient survival and quality of life. Therefore, there is tremendous interest in using recent technological advances in DNA sequencing, medical imaging, and machine learning methods to enable early detection efforts in cancer. Early detection efforts are likely most effective among individuals genetically predisposed to cancer. Moreover, DNA mutations during the aging process can also increase the risk of developing cancer. Therefore, we aim to use population-level sequencing data to build computational methods to assess individualized risk for developing cancer. We envision that the proposed approach will provide novel insights into the role of inherited and acquired DNA mutations toward tumor growth in high-risk individuals. These insights can be employed to facilitate early detection efforts in cancer.

Anastasia Tikhonova, PhD

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to fight and destroy cancer cellsDespite its success in treating a number of cancers, immunotherapy has had a limited impact on the treatment of blood cancers, known as leukemia. While there are many reasons for this, a primary reason is the current lack of understanding of how the cells of the immune system interact with leukemia cells. Present knowledge of the types of immune cells that live in the bone marrow and their behavior at various stages of leukemia are almost entirely lacking. To address this, we will perform a widespread analysis of immune cell composition and function during leukemia disease progression. We will use cutting-edge technology to understand the biological mechanisms that become altered during leukemia, which may cause immune cells to promote the cancer’s initiation and relapse. These studies would enable the identification of “immune signatures” associated with different stages of cancer developmentThe findings will lay the groundwork for our understanding of the bone marrow immune landscape in the context of the human disease. We envision that these studies will fundamentally lead to new treatment strategies for this devastating cancer and thereby improve patient outcomes.  

Faiyaz Notta, PhD

In the last three decades, no new drugs that can effectively treat pancreatic cancer have been found. One of the major problems in pancreatic cancer is that most research is performed on patients where the cancer has not spread to the rest of the body. This is because these patients are eligible for surgery and researchers have access to the tissue for experiments. However, most patients with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed when the disease has already spread. Patients where the disease has spread do very poorly compared to patients where the disease has not spread. We believe that there are changes in the cancer’s DNA that cause the disease to spread.  

To investigate this, our laboratory compared the DNA from patients where the disease had or had not spread, and found that a gene that can potentially promote the spread of this cancer. This gene, named KRAS, multiplies in patients where the cancer has spread. Patients where this gene has multiplied are very resistant drugs used to treat this cancer. The goal of our project is to understand how the multiplication of this gene is related to therapy resistance. Using specialized techniques in our laboratory, we will grow tumor cells from patients with and without multiple copies of KRAS to figure out changes in the cell that are related to this specific genetic change. We intend to use this information to find new drugs to treat patients where the cancer has already spread.  

Shane Harding, Ph.D.

Funded by Hooters of America, LLC

Cancer treatments have improved over the past 30 years, but many patients still die from the disease. A new type of drug has been found that causes the patient’s body to attack the cancer. This new drug, called “immunotherapy”, works very well for some people but not for many others. Our studies try to find ways to make this treatment work for more patients. We are especially interested in how radiation can be used to improve immunotherapy and have found a new way that these two treatments work together. Our current work is focused on finding other ways that these treatments work together. We are especially interested in learning how we might improve how patients feel during and after treatment by reducing the side-effects of therapy. Overall, the major goal of our work is to increase the success of cancer treatment for all patients and to improve their overall quality of life.

Uri Tabori, M.D.

Funded by the Dick Vitale Pediatric Cancer Research Fund

There is a unique group of cancers that progress quickly during childhood due to faults in the mechanisms which repair damaged DNA. As a result, these childhood cancers have the highest number of DNA mutations (hypermutant) of all human cancers. Immunotherapy has demonstrated hopeful results in these patients. Yet, 50% of these cancers will progress after initial response to immunotherapy. This poses a significant problem. Adoptive cell therapy takes advantage of using immune cells to kill cancer cells. Cell therapy has shown promising responses in many adult cancers. This effect is greater when cell therapy is used in combination with prior immunotherapy treatment. Our research team has developed new mouse models that successfully mimic these childhood brain cancers. One of the aims of our research project is to use these mouse models to study the role of cell therapy. We will determine overall survival and response to therapy. We aim to prove the feasibility of expanding childhood immune cells as a proof of concept through the use of our International Consortium. We will use complex computer software and genomic tools. These methods will provide a thorough review of immune cells. We will be able to predict which patients would benefit from cell therapy. This project will increase knowledge in this research area. In addition, it will answer important questions which will lead to improved patient outcomes and treatment options. Most importantly, this project will lead to the first-ever childhood cell therapy clinical trial.

Adam Shlien, Ph.D.

Funded by the Dick Vitale Gala in memory of Chad Carr

Cancer is the leading cause of disease-related death of children past infancy in North America. All cancers contain mutations in their DNA, but the causes of these mutations are usually not known. This gap in our knowledge negatively impacts patient care: It is difficult to predict how a tumor will change – how it will respond and whether it will come back – if one does not understand why or how it developed in the first place. Recently, our lab and others have shown that some childhood cancers contain a fingerprint which can be used to pinpoint what caused its mutations and when they developed. The identification of these fingerprints, or mutational signatures, is a rapidly evolving area of research that has benefited from new technologies, such as whole genome sequencing. This project will identify mutational signatures in aggressive childhood cancers. We will seek to understand whether cancer- causing mutations have common fingerprints, and if these can be used to select patients that would benefit from ongoing clinical trials.

Scott Bratman, M.D., Ph.D.

Many cancers are treated with radiation therapy. Some cancers types are especially hard to treat. One type of cancer that affects the lungs and throat is only cured in about half of cases. Even when drug treatments are added to the radiation therapy, cure rates are not much improved. Also, adding drugs to radiation therapy can make the treatment hard for patients to tolerate. New treatment approaches are needed for these patients.

One new approach that is showing promising results is to give refined treatments that are more precisely targeted to each patient’s cancer. This approach is called Precision Medicine. Precision Medicine has not been used much for the cancer type that affects the lungs and throat. Also, Precision Medicine has not yet been used for radiation therapy. Instead, the standard treatment for these patients continues to be a one-size-fits-all approach.

We expect that the standard one-size-fits-all treatment approach could be replaced by Precision Medicine. The objective of our research is to develop new Precision Medicine approaches for the cancer type that affects the lungs and throat for use with radiation therapy. These new treatments could someday lead to higher cure rates and tolerability of treatment. If successful, our research will lead to new clinical trials that will test these new treatment approaches in cancer patients.

Michael Taylor, M.D., Ph.D., FRCS

Funded in partnership with WWE in honor of Connor’s Cure

Medulloblastoma is the most common malignant brain tumor in children. Medulloblastoma is really made up of four diseases, of which two types: Group 3 and Group 4 account for the majority of cases. The main tumor ‘lump’ in the brain is called the ‘primary tumor’. The primary tumor can spread (metastasize) to cover other regions of the surface of the brain and spinal cord. Most children who die from medulloblastoma die because the tumor has spread (metastasized) and not due to the primary tumor. The most damaging therapies (radiation) for children with Group 3 and Group 4 medulloblastoma are necessary to treat the metastases.

For the most part, medulloblastoma only spreads to the surface of the brain and spinal cord, and not to other organs. According to the textbooks this occurs when cells drop off the primary tumor, float around in the spinal fluid, and then reattach to the brain or spinal cord and start growing again. There really is no evidence or experiments to support this mechanism, just historical speculation. We have now shown that in fact, medulloblastoma spreads through the blood stream—the cells enter the blood stream, and then home back to the brain and spinal cord where they grow and kill the child.

This new understanding of the metastatic process for medulloblastoma offers fresh opportunities to non-invasively diagnose medulloblastoma in the blood, to prevent the metastatic cascade, prevent the progression of metastases, and decrease the toxicity of therapy for children with medulloblastoma.

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