Childhood cancer research in Connecticut got a boost this summer from St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which awarded about $150,000 to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and Yale School of Medicine.
The grants are among 90 new awards totaling $23.5 million that the foundation announced July 25.
At Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital, oncologist Juan Vasquez won about $97,000 to continue research into pediatric brain tumors. He began his work in 2015 with a $195,000 grant from the foundation.
Since then, he’s examined brain tumor samples from a handful of Yale-New Haven patients to try to understand what blocks their immune systems from fighting back. He hopes to expand his study to 20 to 30 more pediatric patients this year and eventually develop a new cancer vaccine.
Several treatments are already being used to jump-start the immune systems of adults with melanoma and lung cancer. But childhood cancers form for different reasons and attack the immune system in different ways, Vasquez says.
“We can’t just take results from adults and apply it to kids. It doesn’t really work that way,” he said. “It’s really important to dedicate our research on kids themselves.”
He added that commercial breakthroughs, and the kind of money that helps researchers cross the finish line are years off for young researchers. Competition for funds can be particularly tough for those studying childhood cancers, which receive just 4 percent of total federal cancer research funding, according to the 2014 National Institutes of Health budget, the most recent year with available data.
That’s what makes short-term investments, like those from the foundation, critical, he said.
“When you’re in your early stage and have yet to put out some earth-shaking paper, you need help from organizations like St. Baldrick’s,” Vasquez said.
At Children’s Medical in Hartford, researcher Andrea Orsey received a two-year, $50,000 grant to develop a system to prevent and treat heart damage in pediatric cancer patients.
In addition to studying a class of chemotherapy drugs that increase the risk of heart disease in childhood cancer survivors, Orsey is developing guidelines to prevent and recognize early signs of heart trouble.
Orsey, who directs the hospital’s cancer supportive care program, also teaches pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, where she received her MD in 2001.
Both awards were the second each institution had won in the past 12 months from St. Baldrick’s.
In December 2016, Children’s Medical researcher Natalie Bezler received a year-long grant to develop a program for cancers of the blood and lymph system.
And at Yale’s medical school last July, cancer geneticist Sidi Chen received a year-long grant to study a particularly deadly type of pediatric brain tumor.
The largest grant St. Baldrick’s announced last week gives $5.8 million to the Children’s Oncology Group, whose member institutions include Children’s Medical and Yale.
Since 2005, St. Baldrick’s has funded more than $230 million in childhood cancer research grants.