In response to the funding decrease of childhood cancer research from the National Institutes of Health’s budget, the Wynnewood-based cancer nonprofit Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation announced March 1 that it awarded its inaugural Bridge Grants to three pediatric cancer researchers.
“We had new supporters come on last year who raised $1.5 million for us,” Co-Executive Director Jay Scott said of new fundraisers Toys’R’Us. “We didn’t want the money to sit idle, so we were luckily able to fund these three researchers to keep them going for a year.”
The three bridge grant recipients receiving $100,000 each for a 12-month period are Dr. Kimberly Stegmaier and Dr. Tom Look of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Mass., and Dr. Adolfo Ferrando of the Columbia University Medical Center.
All three researchers' projects were given excellent scores by NIH, but were unable to receive funding from the organization.
Scott said that NIH’s funding has been so flat in recent years that it hasn’t been able to fund as many grants as it had previously done.
ALSF opened the rolling grant application process in early Dec. 2011.
Ferrando was informed he received his grant in December, while the doctors at the Dana-Farber Institute found out in early February.
Recipients were selected based on their projects, scores they got through the NIH funding mechanism – which allowed ALSF’s scientific advisory board to avoid a lengthy, full review process – and whether or not the research project fit in with ALSF’s mission.
“Part of the application process was for them to tell us how they’ll take this one-year grant and turn it around,” Scott said. “The data they’ll find during this time will make it more likely for the government to fund them the next time they apply.”
Stegmaier said she’s been interested in cancer research since she was a child.
A medical graduate of Harvard University, Stegmaier pursued a year-long HHMI Medical Student Research Fellowship, during which she studied the molecular basis of pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Stegmaier completed residency training at the Children’s Hopsital of Boston, where she found herself “gravitating toward the emotional intensity of working with [cancer-afflicted] children and their families.”
“I always loved working with children,” Stegmaier wrote in an e-mail. “Quite simply, they make me happy. Despite the life and death battle being waged, they retained a joie de vivre…the privilege of caring for children with cancer affirmed my passion to pursue a career in pediatric oncology and made even more obvious to me, the dire need for improved therapies.”
Following her residency, Stegmaier completed a clinical and research fellowship on pediatric hematology and oncology at the Dana-Farber Institute and Children’s Hopsital of Boston, where she’s been ever since.
She’s currently the Institute’s principal investigator, where she leads a research program on integrating genomic approaches to identify new therapeutic targets and drugs for pediatric cancers.
Stegmaier’s research project, for which she received ALSF’s grant, focuses on searching for new therapies for patients with Ewing sarcoma, a cancerous tumor that grows in bones or soft tissue near bones.
Her research team will look to develop strategies to discover compounds inhibiting difficulty-to-target cancer promoting, tumor-specific proteins, for therapy-based and identification purposes.
Look’s research project examines why first-line therapy for children with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) continues to fail in approximately 25 percent of those diagnosed.
A medical graduate of University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a fellow in pediatric oncology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., Look joined the Institute in June 1999 as vice chair for pediatric oncology research and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
Look is grateful for the opportunity afforded to him by the bridge grant, since T-ALL patients with failed treatments are left with a poor prognosis.
“I was delighted to receive the news that I received a bridge grant from ALSF,” Look wrote in an e-mail. “It came just in time to forestall cuts that would have affected very experienced staff investigators who are highly trained and committed to research in pediatric cancer.”
Ferrando’s research analyzes the role of a gene called NOTCH1 in the development of T-ALL, with the goal of improving targeted therapy for children diagnosed with this form of cancer.
Ferrando, with postdoctoral training from the Institute and medical and doctorate degrees from the University of Oviedo Spain, estimates that the project will take five years to yield results, which is why he’s grateful for the year-long focus the bridge grant has afforded him.
“These are really exciting times for pediatric cancer research,” Ferrando said. “The pace of discovery is accelerating and there is urgent need to translate these results to the clinic.”
Scott said he’s excited his organization was able to help these three researchers who were in tough positions prior to the grant funding. He said the next round of bridge grants would be awarded in June.
“It’s a relatively small amount of money in the scope of research dollars, but that amount is able to make a real difference for these three projects,” Scott said.