Driving to end childhood cancer

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The sight of children putting their little paws in finger paint and leaving handprints on a new Hyundai SUV encouraged onlookers Sept. 24 at UT Health San Antonio’s Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute.

Every 36 minutes, a child is diagnosed with cancer. To help in the fight against it, Hyundai Hope on Wheels® presented two grants totaling $500,000 to UT Health San Antonio for pediatric cancer research. Gregory Aune, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of pediatric hematology-oncology and an investigator in the Greehey Institute, will receive a $300,000 Hyundai Scholar Hope Award. Amanda Lipsitt, M.D., a third-year fellow in pediatric hematology-oncology, will receive a $200,000 Hyundai Young Investigator Award. The grants will allow both physician-scientists to continue their research into better treatment options and improving care for children battling cancer.

“These new research grants provided by Hyundai Hope on Wheels® represent a new chapter of hope for children and parents, sparked by the commitment of scientists, health care providers and business people,” said Peter Houghton, Ph.D., professor of molecular medicine and director of the Greehey Institute. With these awards, Hyundai Hope on Wheels®’ support of research at UT Health San Antonio exceeds $1.5 million.

Dr. Aune, himself a survivor of a childhood cancer, is studying the long-term cardiac effects of chemotherapy. He uses mouse models to study how different cell types in the heart respond to anthracycline chemotherapies. “We can look at different types of cells in the heart and understand how their genetic profile changes in response to the chemotherapy exposure,” Dr. Aune said. “From that, hopefully we will be able to understand more about why exposure to chemotherapy, when the heart is growing, puts patients at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease decades later.”

The development of the heart is finished by birth, he said. All the chambers, valves and blood vessels have formed. Then their job is to grow as the rest of the body grows.

“In our mouse model, we give the chemotherapy in a similar time period, when the heart is developed after birth but before it’s done growing,” Dr. Aune said. “We will then evaluate how the rodents’ trajectory changes in terms of overall health and cardiovascular health.”

Thanks to the Hyundai grant, the Aune team will test a hypothesis that a particular cell type in the heart is possibly a major contributor to the long-term cardiac toxicity seen in childhood cancer survivors. This pool of cells hasn’t been adequately studied, Dr. Aune said.

Dr. Lipsitt is studying angiosarcoma, a rare but aggressive form of cancer seen in both children and adults. She is conducting the research in a zebrafish cancer model in the laboratory of Greehey Institute investigator Myron Ignatius, Ph.D.

“In children, angiosarcoma is more metastatic and aggressive,” Dr. Lipsitt said. “These children’s prognosis is poor. This cancer recurs frequently, and a lot of times at diagnosis, it has already spread because it’s so aggressive.”

Zebrafish are useful in cancer research since they have the unique quality of being small and transparent. Dr. Lipsitt will assess the stages of angiosarcoma initiation and progression in the fish.

“I’m able to inject angiosarcoma cells that grow in the fish, and I can make these cancer cells glow green,” Dr. Lipsitt said. “In this way, I am able to follow how cancer grows in the fish and how it spreads.”

With the help of the Hyundai grant, she will also screen drugs to test their anti-cancer activity in the fish. Because there is a lack of efficient ways to pre-clinically test these drugs on angiosarcoma, this zebrafish model proves to be very valuable.

In addition to their research studies in the Greehey Institute, Dr. Aune and Dr. Lipsitt see patients in the South Texas Pediatric Blood Disorders and Cancer Center at University Hospital. This treatment center is a clinical partnership of UT Health San Antonio and University Health System. University Hospital is the primary site where UT Health San Antonio faculty see children, adolescents and young adults with cancer.

“Support from Hyundai Hope on Wheels®, this year and over past years, has enabled physicians such as Dr. Lipsitt to gain experience in basic cancer research during their advanced training,” said Gail E. Tomlinson, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and division director of pediatric hematology-oncology. “In the case of Dr. Aune, who is an established researcher, this support enables him to continue his focus on understanding mechanisms of late effects of cancer therapy. We are so appreciative of the community partnership we have established with Hyundai.”

Representatives of Hyundai Motor America joined UT Health San Antonio scientists and the children and families for the presentation. The children and parents were also treated to a laboratory tour during which they saw the zebrafish facility and a mouse run on a treadmill as its cardiovascular health was tested.


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