The V Foundation has awarded nearly $55 million in grants towards pediatric cancer research. Alan Friedman, M.D., a professor of pediatric oncology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, received a translational grant in 2018.
Driven to make a difference
When Friedman started his pediatric oncology fellowship at Johns Hopkins over three decades ago, he chose the field not only because of his passion for working with children. “I [also] chose pediatric oncology due to my strong interest in scientific research and what I saw as a strong opportunity to make a difference in that field,” he recalls.
Early on, Friedman’s driving scientific interest was the process of differentiation, how the many different kinds of cells in our body develop from one initial cell. When this process goes as it should, it’s like a miraculous cellular symphony that creates all of the tissues and organs that keep us alive. When it malfunctions, it can lead certain cells to grow out of control, causing cancer.
Friedman chose to focus on how stem cells in our bone marrow create white blood cells, the body’s main defenders against infections and illnesses. Cancers like leukemia develop from white blood cells with defective differentiation, causing these cells to get stuck in an immature state. Ultimately, Friedman hopes to develop a novel leukemia therapy that overcomes this problem, allowing the body to make healthy white blood cells.
Arming the immune system
About eight years ago, Friedman began to investigate the relationship between solid tumors and white blood cells. Many types of solid tumors contain a large number of macrophages, a kind of white blood cell. These macrophages seem to stand guard over the tumor, preventing the body’s immune system from attacking the cancer cells. Currently, Friedman is identifying ways to redirect these tumor macrophages so that instead of protecting the cancer, they activate the immune system to kill cancer cells.
Friedman is already making progress. He discovered that removing a protein called NF-kappaB p50, or p50 for short, from bone marrow stem cells in mice causes the mice to make macrophages that help the immune system attack the cancer cells. When mice with solid tumors such as prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer or neuroblastoma received this white blood cell boost, their tumors grew much slower. In some cases, the tumors even shrunk dramatically.
“I find this research exciting,” said Friedman. “Activating the patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer, so-called immunotherapy is less toxic than standard chemotherapy and has the potential to work against a wide variety of cancers.”
A continuing quest
Though this is a fascinating discovery, Friedman’s work is not yet complete. Without funders like the V Foundation, it would be hard for Friedman to move his research forward and reveal more insights.
For more than 30 years, Friedman has been one of many researchers witnessing—and driving—substantial progress in pediatric cancer treatment. While improvements in chemotherapy, bone marrow transplantation and recent efforts in immunotherapy are certainly cause for optimism, Friedman also recognizes some challenges that require further exploration.
“One current challenge is to harness the immune system to make a major difference for children and adults with solid tumors,” said Friedman. “I am hopeful that my laboratory and others can make major strides in this area in the coming decade.”
Friedman and many other researchers need your help. Your support makes new treatment discoveries possible. By funding researchers like Friedman, we are one step closer to Victory Over Cancer