Pediatric cancer receives only about 4 percent of the total amount of funding that the National Institutes of Health doles out for cancer research.
Those who specialize in pediatric cancer research, like Dr. Seth Corey, a researcher and pediatric oncologist with the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, must often depend instead on philanthropic donations to do their work — and Corey has just received two more such donations to continue tackling pediatric leukemia.
Corey recently received two $250,000 grants, one from Hyundai Hope on Wheels and the other from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation.
“Philanthropy has always played — and will continue to play — a major role in supporting, especially, innovative research,” Corey said.
The Hyundai grant will go toward finding drugs available to children with recurrent leukemia, which is a cancer of blood-forming tissue, such as bone marrow. New drugs are sometimes prohibitively expensive, and they are often tailored to adult cancers. It takes time to test them for pediatric cancer use — time that some patients don’t have.
“So what we’ve done is to go back and re-discover old drugs, meaning drugs that have been around for a long time,” Corey said.
This type of work is called drug re-positioning, or drug re-purposing, and it’s often less expensive. One drug that was developed to treat asthma and allergic conditions is now one of the most successful drugs for the treatment of some types of leukemia and lymphoma, he pointed out.
“The advantage is these drugs have been used in other conditions in kids as well as adults,” he explained. “Their safety record is well known.”
With the grant, which starts Jan. 1, Corey plans to investigate how some antibiotics and a drug used to treat malaria would target leukemia cells.
The second grant from the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation is aimed at tracking leukemia, kind of like tracking a hurricane, Corey explained.
“We want to know not only if it will change into a hurricane, we also want to know where it’s going to hit — is it going to hit Florida, Puerto Rico? — and when is it going to hit — Friday morning, Sunday afternoon?” he said.
“So we can take next (generation) sequencing data and put it into a mathematical model and use computers to simulate conditions and make a prediction for that specific person as to whether he or she will have a risk of developing leukemia, how great the risk is, when’s it going to happen, and then we can intervene,” he said.
He also compared it to getting cholesterol levels taken at the doctor. Physicians can use those results to tell if patients are at risk for developing heart disease, and use some sort of preventive medicine, such as statins.
“We need to have these tests tell us which people are at risk for developing a leukemia, and then we also have to figure out how we can treat it, if not by a stem cell transplant then by some very safe preventive medicine,” Corey said.
The ultimate goal of both grants is to get closer to curing all children with leukemia, and possibly preventing them from developing it in the first place.
Corey said he is excited about receiving the grants, but is more excited for helping the children he sees one-on-one as an oncologist.
“It’s really about the kids, making their lives better,” he said.