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Grants Support Efforts To Improve Neuroblastoma Treatment

October 19, 2011

Two Baylor College of Medicine physicians have received support from the nonprofit group Cookies for Kids’ Cancer for their research on neuroblastoma — a common type of solid tumor in children.

Dr. Leonid Metelitsa, associate professor of pediatrics at BCM and a pediatric oncologist at Texas Children’s Cancer Center, and Dr. Jed Nuchtern, professor of pediatrics and of surgery at BCM, who is a surgical oncologist at the center, each received $100,000 from the organization.

The funding supports their work to find new treatments for neuroblastoma. The survival rate for neuroblastoma is currently less than 40 percent, and it accounts for 15 percent of all pediatric cancer deaths.

Still difficult to treat

“The overall survival rate of children’s cancers has improved to about 80 percent today from 10 percent 30 years ago but the fact remains that some cancers, including some forms of neuroblastoma, are still very hard to treat,” said Dr. David Poplack, director of Texas Children’s Cancer Center, a joint program of BCM and Texas Children’s Hospital. “We are grateful for the support of Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, which allows our researchers to continue their work to find better treatment and cures for childhood cancer.”

Metelitsa’s project will evaluate the treatment potential of Natural Killer T cells (NKTs) that have been enhanced by neuroblast-targeting molecules. NKTs are a subset of white blood cells with antitumor properties. Previous studies by his research group have shown that NKTs localize to the tumor site in neuroblastoma patients and attack nonmalignant tumor-supporting cells. They have also shown that enhanced NKTs can take on a dual role of attacking both the tumor-supporting cells and the neuroblastoma cells themselves.

The results of the study will aid in the design of a phase I clinical trial of gene-modified NKTs in children with recurrent neuroblastoma or refractory (resistant to treatment) neuroblastoma.

Nuchtern’s project will use state-of-the-art genomic technology to analyze tumor samples obtained through biopsy and surgery to identify changes in chemotherapy-resistant neuroblastoma cells that remain after therapy in a group of children who did not survive.

Determining treatment resistance

The data gained from the study will help researchers determine the mechanisms of treatment resistance in neuroblastoma and pinpoint therapeutic agents that should be added to standard chemotherapy to develop effective new treatments.

Cookies for Kids’ Cancer was founded in 2008 by Gretchen and Larry Witt, who were inspired by their son Liam’s battle against pediatric cancer. The foundation’s grants support promising research with the strongest chance of making the leap from lab to clinic within two years.

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