July 6th, 2011

UNM Cancer Center Researchers Pioneer Largest Ever Genome Sequencing Effort for Pediatric Cancer

By msequeira
Results highlight new targets for treatment in high-risk childhood leukemias

UNM Cancer Center researchers, including the Center’s director and CEO, Cheryl Willman, MD, have undertaken the largest pediatric cancer genome sequencing effort reported to date. As described in a recent paper in the scientific journal Blood (prepublished online on June 16), the researchers, part of the multi-institutional Children’s Oncology Group, sequenced 120 genes in 187 samples of high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemias from children with the disease. The genes chosen for sequencing were selected strategically to include genes known to have altered expression in acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and genes commonly mutated in other cancers.


And indeed, researchers found a high frequency of recurrent mutations in four key signaling pathways responsible for everything from cell growth, differentiation and survival to tumor suppression. Moreover, they discovered that these recurrent mutations vary markedly across different genetic subtypes of ALL (that is, distinct patterns of genes associated with the disease). The team’s findings both extend the range of genes known to mutate regularly in high-relapse forms of pediatric ALL and highlight important new therapeutic targets for certain groups of young patients with the disease.


ALL is the most common childhood cancer. Approximately 5,000 children in the US are diagnosed with the disease each year, including about 45 New Mexican kids. Once a death sentence, pediatric ALL is now considered highly treatable, with five-year survival rates nearing 85 percent. Still, up to 20 percent of children treated for ALL will relapse, and these children are much less likely to ultimately survive the disease: post-relapse, five-year survival rates dip to just 30 percent. Better understanding what drives treatment resistance and promotes relapse is thus an urgent priority in ALL research.


The UNM Cancer Center’s Dr. Cheryl Willman is one of three lead investigators on the present study and a co-author of the latest Blood paper. She and Children’s Oncology Group colleagues from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the University of Colorado are recipients of the National Cancer Institute’s TARGET funding. TARGET, short for Therapeutically Applicable Research to Generate Effective Treatments, seeks to identify valid therapeutic targets in childhood cancers so that new, more effective treatments can be rapidly developed. Dr. Willman and colleagues, part of a TARGET initiative focused on ALL, are using genomic approaches and high-throughput gene sequencing to identify new targets for treating pediatric ALL. It is out of this research that previous findings related to Native American genetic ancestry and ALL relapse risk emerged. In the current study, the research team is specifically investigating ALL cases that relapse within 36 months of diagnosis in an effort to better understand the genomic changes associated with treatment failure.


About the UNM Cancer Center

The UNM Cancer Center is the Official Cancer Center of New Mexico and the only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer center in the state. One of just 66 NCI-designated cancer centers nationwide, the UNM Cancer Center is recognized for its scientific excellence, contributions to cancer research and delivery of medical advances to patients and their families. It is home to 85 board-certified oncology physicians representing every cancer specialty and 127 research scientists hailing from prestigious institutions such as MD Anderson, Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic. The UNM Cancer Center treats more than 65 percent of the adults and virtually all of the children in New Mexico affected by cancer, from every county in the state. In 2010, it provided care to more than 15,800 cancer patients. The Center’s research programs are supported by nearly $60 million annually in federal and private funding.


UNM Cancer Center contact information
Dorothy Hornbeck, JKPR, (505) 797-6673, dhornbeck@jameskorenchen.com
Audrey Manring, UNM Cancer Center, (505) 925-0486, amanring@salud.unm.edu






Tags: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, genomics, Leukemia, Press Release Archive 2011