By Alicia Di Rado and Roberta Nichols
The STOP CANCER organization has awarded career development grants to Ya-Huei Kuo, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, and Joseph Kim, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Surgery.
Each scientist will receive $150,000 over three years to conduct their innovative research. City of Hope will raise funds to match the grants, bringing each to more than $300,000.
|Ya-Huei Kuo (Photo by p.cunningham)|
Specifically, Kuo delves into stem cells associated with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The studies may provide insight into other cancers, as well.
Kuo, part of the Division of Hematopoietic Stem Cell and Leukemia Research, identifies pathways that contribute to the development and maintenance of leukemia stem cells, as well as the regulation of normal hematopoietic stem cell function. She is an expert in using genetically engineered mouse models to study hematopoietic stem cell transformation in AML.
Just as healthy stem cells regenerate healthy tissue, leukemia stem cells form the underpinnings of leukemia. “This leukemia stem cell population is often resistant to currently available treatments,” she said.
Unfortunately, that means that even when treatment kills most leukemia cells and patients go into remission, a few leukemia stem cells remain in their bodies, she explained. At some point, the patient relapses.
Adding to this challenge are the striking similarities between leukemia stem cells and normal hematopoietic stem cells. “It’s critical to understand the properties of these leukemia stem cells and what differentiates them from normal stem cells,” she explained. “If we know that, we can start to develop strategies to specifically target leukemia stem cells.”
Kuo compares leukemia stem cells to the seeds of a weed that remain even after the weed itself is pulled from the ground. Targeting leukemia stem cells “is like finding and eradicating the seed of a weed while preserving the rest of the garden,” she said.
She specifically studies the signals involved in leukemia development and progression. If researchers can understand which signals are essential for these stem cells to survive, they may be able to shut the signals off — and leave the cells vulnerable to therapy.
While Kuo studies hematologic cancer, her fellow STOP CANCER recipient, Kim, focuses on solid tumors.
Kim is studying a protein that helps pancreatic cancer grow and spread, research that could lead to muchneeded drugs against this difficult form of cancer. That protein is called CXCR4.
“Cancer’s development and metastasis depends on more than one factor, but we believe pancreatic cancer begins, in part, with the help of CXCR4,” said Kim, part of the Division of General Oncologic Surgery.
A receptor found on the surface of cells, CXCR4 is normally inactive in healthy cells. Kim and his colleagues found that cells begin to express high levels of the CXCR4 protein at pancreatic cancer’s beginnings, when abnormal cells first begin to form a lesion. The protein stays active throughout pancreatic tumors’ growth.
Kim and his colleagues recently published related findings in the journal Gut. The group is now studying whether an existing drug can successfully block the protein.
The research is critical: More than 37,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States and more than 34,000 will die of the disease this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
STOP CANCER is a nonprofit, philanthropic organization founded in 1988 by the late entrepreneur and philanthropist Armand Hammer in partnership with Sherry Lansing, then chief executive officer and chair of Paramount Pictures.
Based in Southern California, it is dedicated to helping find a cure for cancer by funding cancer research at National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers, such as City of Hope. It provides grants to scientists engaged in innovative cancer research, particularly research with clinical applications. Since 2003, STOP CANCER has supported young investigators at City of Hope with grants totaling more than $1 million. For more information about STOP CANCER, please visit www.stopcancer.net.