A crowd of physicians and scientists watched and nodded as City of Hope oncologist Mark Kirschbaum, M.D., clicked through colorful slides projected on a screen — a scene that could have played out at any cancer conference.
But the panorama behind him made it far from the usual scientific talk. Just a few yards away, through thick glass walls, shone a postcard view: lush green outfield grass, glittering seats and the waving palm trees of Dodger Stadium.
“I was hoping we’d have the organist and be able to show our slides on the big screen,” said Kirschbaum, the Tim Nesvig Lymphoma Fellow and director of new drug development in the Division of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, who gestured at the stadium’s scoreboard as colleagues chuckled.
The Feb. 15 symposium was a meeting of scientific minds from City of Hope and Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, part of rapidly growing efforts for ThinkCure. ThinkCure is a nonprofit entity created by the Los Angeles Dodgers, the McCourt family (owners of the Dodgers), City of Hope and Childrens Hospital to support cancer research at the two institutions and ultimately find a cure for the disease. It is the official charity of the Dodgers.
About two dozen physicians and scientists from City of Hope and Childrens Hospital attended the informal event. Only days after Dodgers players departed for spring training to lay groundwork for a new baseball season and gel as a unit, the scientific investigators gathered for a similar mission: to build teamwork.
Stephen J. Forman, the Francis and Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope, emphasized that researchers at both institutions share the same goals, despite differences in the age of their patient base. “What I’ve come to appreciate is that it’s tragic for a child to lose their life from cancer, but it’s just as tragic for a child to lose their parent to cancer,” he said.
The scientists met the new president of ThinkCure, former Los Angeles Times executive Janet Clayton, as well as Charles Steinberg, D.D.S., executive vice president of marketing and public relations for the Dodgers.
Stuart Siegel, M.D., director of the Childrens Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases at Childrens Hospital, underscored collaboration — “The purpose of this meeting is to bring together investigators who have areas of common research,” he said — as researchers settled in to talk about their areas of expertise and possible joint projects.
The partnership among a Childrens Hospital investigator and two City of Hope physicians-cientists, for one, symbolizes the growing potential of work between the two institutions. Markus Müschen, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Leukemia Research Program at the Saban Research Institute of Childrens Hospital, described studies now beginning with City of Hope’s Takahiro “Taka” Maeda, M.D., Ph.D, assistant professor in the Department of Hematopoietic Stem Cell and Leukemia Research, and Ravi Bhatia, M.D., director of that same department.
Müschen studies a particularly difficult-to-treat form of acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL. That form is driven by the so-called Philadelphia chromosome: a translocation of two genes, called bcr and abl, from two different chromosomes. Specifically, he studies ALL originating from cells destined to become B cells, and he hopes to target cancer-promoting signaling in that stem cell transformation process.
“Unfortunately, stem cells in ALL have not been identified as yet,” he said. That is where Maeda and Bhatia come in. Bhatia studies leukemia stem cells — early progenitor cells that can turn into leukemia cells. Although Bhatia focuses on such cells in chronic myelogenous leukemia, lessons learned from one blood cancer may apply to others. “Some of the mechanisms should be pretty common at the primitive cell level,” Bhatia said.
Maeda is an expert in early B cell development, making him an ideal resource in the pursuit of stem cells that may form the very origins of this form of ALL. Noted Siegel, after the trio spoke, “This is a great model of what we want to see.”
Speakers and potential collaborators included these investigators:
• City of Hope’s Michael C. Jensen, M.D., and Childrens Hospital’s Robert Seeger, M.D., who discussed the growing potential of using immune-based therapies — such as harnessing T cells and natural killer cells — in gliomas and other cancers.
• Smita Bhatia, M.D., M.P.H., of City of Hope, and David Freyer, D.O., of Childrens Hospital, who shared their nascent partnership in childhood cancer survivorship and outcomes research.
• City of Hope’s Hua Yu, Ph.D., and Childrens Hospital’s Leonid Metelitsa, M.D., Ph.D., who discussed interaction between the STAT3 protein and the immune system, which may hint at ways to wake up the immune system to fight cancer.
• C. Patrick Reynolds, M.D., Ph.D., and Marcio Malogolowkin, M.D., from Childrens Hospital, and Kirschbaum and Richard Jove, Ph.D., of City of Hope, who discussed the institutions’ focus and successes in developing new therapeutics and ushering them quickly to clinical trials.
The two institutions are already planning future symposia to address additional opportunities. Noted Forman: “Together, we may be able to do far more than we could alone.”