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Mark Myers

19 Ways to Help Children Fighting Cancer

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and while the issues and obstacles may seem overwhelming, there are little things you can do to Go Gold 4 CURE and help children with cancer. Whether you donate to advance research, display a gold bow, or share a Facebook post, many small actions can work together to make a big difference.

To help you narrow it down, here are 19 things you can do for children with cancer.

1. Get a gold bow for your mailbox – these beautiful bows share CURE with everyone driving past your house. Thanks to your incredible generosity, we are sold out for 2021 in Atlanta.

There are still bows available for Bryan County, Bluffton, and Effingham County HERE.

2. Host a Coins4CURE coin drive in your office or child’s school. Coins4CURE has made more than $370,000 for CURE one quarter at a time. Sign up at Coins4cure.org.

3. CURE’s Kids. Every day during September we share the stories of kids who have fought cancer. Our homepage will rotate daily to the featured pictures with links to their story and we will share them on our social media. Take a minute to read about these heroes, donate if you’re able, and share them with your friends.

4. We have businesses all over the state that are partnering with us during September. All month long, you can get a burger, enjoy chicken salad, or splurge on a donut that benefits CURE. Click HERE to support the businesses that support CURE.

5. Restaurants and businesses also host percentage nights where a portion of the proceeds from your purchase will benefit CURE. Take a look at our Calendar and make plans to visit those around you.

6. Do you own or frequent a business that would GoGold4CURE for a percentage night? We will provide everything you need to get started. Simply contact Kristen Rudio at [email protected] if you have an idea!

7. Start a Facebook Fundraiser. This is a great way to share our cause with your friends and family while raising important funds to help. Click HERE to set yours up.

8. Visit the CURE Store. By buying and wearing a CURE t-shirt, hat, or necklace, you are helping us to conquer childhood cancer while sharing the mission at the same time. Shop Now!

9. Add CURE’s September logo to your emails and everyone you email will know you support CURE. Click HERE to download. Be sure to link it to http://gogold4CURE.org.

10. If you are involved with a school, try to plan a Gold-Out Games. Most schools have been affected by pediatric cancer in some way and this is a great way to energize students for a good cause. Contact Kristen Rudio at [email protected] for more information.

11. Love golf? There are two golf tournaments benefiting CURE on September 24. Enjoy a round of golf in the 32 annual Golf Classic for CURE in Covington or the HRA Foundation Charity Tournament in Villa Rica and support CURE at the same time.

12. Add a donation sticker to a post or story on Instagram. Click HERE for instructions.

13. Grab your sneakers and run a 5k in Athens. The 5k for Kappy will be a special race in memory of Catherine Williams that benefits CURE. This race is moving to the spring due to COVID-19 concerns. Information about a virtual race in September will be available soon on our social media and HERE.

14. Add our Childhood Cancer Awareness Month Facebook Frame to your profile picture. We will share it on Facebook at the beginning of September.

15. Download our September poster and hang it up at your favorite stores and restaurants. Click HERE to download.

16. Get your car washed in loving memory of Lake Bozman in Marietta on September 11. Click HERE for details.

17. Send our Text-to-Give link to five friends and tell them to text FIGHT to 443211 – it’s that easy!

18. Follow us and share our posts on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. This is an easy way to help us get the word out.

19. Host your own lemonade stand, chili cookoff, or other neighborhood event. The sky is the limit to what you can do. You can do it all yourself or use our handy DIY Fundraising site!

September is an important month for CURE, and we can’t do it alone. But with everyone working together, we can really make a difference for kids this year! If you need any help or direction, please reach out – we would love to talk to you. Please email Kristen Rudio at [email protected].

Anderson’s Change of Plans

At the age of ten, Anderson had already chosen his career path. After a brief stint in the minor leagues, he planned on playing major league baseball – preferably for the Braves. He was working hard toward his goal, but after a batting session in 2013, Anderson complained of chest pain. As the pain persisted, his parents took him to the emergency room, where they thought it was likely a pulled muscle.

A few days later, he began to feel sick to his stomach. So they went to the emergency room, where a blood test revealed that Anderson had leukemia. He immediately started the standard treatment, which was scheduled to last three years.

“Anderson always took longer than average to rebound from the chemo,” said his mother, Sally. “In fact, early in his treatment, his count stayed very low, and he got a severe infection called typhlitis.”

Typhlitis is an infection of the intestine, and in Anderson’s case, it caused him all kinds of trouble. He needed emergency surgery, and his body struggled to fight off sepsis in the area. After they got that situation under control, Anderson wasn’t able to walk because the infection had moved to his upper leg.

“He was such an avid baseball player that it was awful thinking that he might never be able to play again,” Sally recalled. “It took six months for him to be able to walk on his own, and he still has a little hitch in his gait.”

While he was learning to walk again, a music therapist put a guitar in his hands. That moment changed the trajectory of his life. Anderson loved playing that guitar, and he developed a love for music that became a guiding force in his life. But his battle with cancer wasn’t over. His medical team ended his treatment early because of his dangerous sensitivity to chemotherapy.

Unfortunately, Anderson relapsed 15 months later. His doctors decided on a 2-year treatment that was slightly less toxic. He tolerated it well, but ten months after completing it, he relapsed again.

“We were shocked when they said it was back,” Sally said. “Anderson had no symptoms. He was just getting routine labs.”

In 2020, Anderson began treatment for the third time just as the pandemic swept across the world. When he reached remission, his doctors decided to start (CAR) T-cell therapy. This new form of treatment uses the patient’s own immune cells to fight cancer by changing them in the lab so they can find and destroy cancer cells. It worked perfectly for Anderson. He has been in remission since.

“We are very blessed that the T-cell therapy was available for Anderson this time,” Sally shared. “Our children deserve the very best treatments, and the only way we will get there is by funding research.”

That was a year ago. Since that time, Anderson has taken up golf, graduated high school, and focused on his love of music. In fact, he will begin his studies at Belmont University this fall, where he will study to be an audio engineer. No longer focused on baseball, Anderson plans to work in the music business – all because of a guitar handed to him during treatment.

Gunner’s Back in Motion

Two-year-old Gunner lives just outside of Savannah and spends his time trying to keep up with his five older siblings. It’s a full-time job, but he is in constant motion and doesn’t let anything get him down. Last August, he had sporadic fevers and stomachaches but still kept moving as best he could. His mother, Ciji, chalked it up to teething and the typical ailments a toddler gets. She wasn’t really worried about him until one day when she was rocking him and felt a bulge on his side.

“I knew something was very wrong when I felt that bulge, so took him to his pediatrician the next day,” recalled Ciji. “She said his blood counts were off and thought he might have leukemia. Our next stop was the emergency room.”

That news was terrifying for Ciji but proved to be incorrect. Scans and bloodwork revealed that leukemia wasn’t the culprit; Gunner had a Wilms tumor. At the hospital, a whole new set of rules were in place because of the pandemic, and Ciji was the only parent able to be with him. This meant that she had to tell her husband, Cody, about Gunner’s diagnosis over the phone.

“That was hard on both of us,” Ciji said. “Cody wanted to be in the hospital with us, and Gunner certainly wanted his daddy with him. We both understood why the precautions were necessary. But that didn’t make being alone to get that news any easier.”

A Wilms tumor is a rare kidney cancer that primarily affects children. Gunner’s was situated on his right kidney. By the time it was discovered, the tumor was enormous. His medical team rushed him to surgery with the hopes of removing the tumor along with his kidney. But the tumor was so large it had roots attached to vital organs, so they couldn’t even remove enough for a biopsy. Gunner was put on a six-week chemotherapy regimen with the hopes of shrinking the tumor so surgery would be possible.

A scan after the chemo showed that the tumor had shrunk significantly, making surgery possible. Doctors removed the tumor along with his kidney and a few lymph nodes. Even after the chemo, the tumor was the size of a softball!

Gunner’s surgery was followed by another six weeks of chemo and radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells, so the tumor never returns.

The pandemic added much stress to Gunner’s treatment. While his three oldest siblings wanted to be home to help, they were in school while Gunner was immunocompromised. One of his brothers was exposed to the virus and had to quarantine away from home. Fortunately, he didn’t contract COVID, but the family knew they had to keep him away to protect Gunner’s health.

Gunner recently completed his treatment and is back to chasing his siblings around the house. With six kids, there is always something going on. While Ciji looks forward to getting back to normal, her experience with pediatric cancer has opened her eyes to a whole new world.

“I know Gunner’s treatment has been relatively easy,” she said. “I sometimes feel guilty when I see other kids who aren’t doing as well. I’m very thankful for his health and I realize that we are blessed. I hope our story can encourage other people to stay positive when they get horrible news.”

Looking Ahead to a New Year

I had childhood cancer in 1971 when I was less than two years old. At the time, the doctors gave my parents a poor prognosis for my survival due to the rapid spread of an aggressive rhabdomyosarcoma tumor. But my parents refused to accept the reality that there was nothing else that could be done. It was then that they had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Abdel Ragab, a young doctor at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. He gave my parents hope when they had little left. He told them not to give up – that there were still options for treatment that might save my life.

Due to his guidance and encouragement, I began a chemotherapy treatment that was a clinical trial. (Consequently, this trial happens to be the standard treatment for rhabdomyosarcoma today.) I also received the maximum dose of radiation which allowed doctors to remove the tumor threatening my life. As a result of these treatments, I beat the odds and survived. Since then, my life has included multiple surgeries, hospital stays, and procedures to address the side effects from the treatment that saved my life.

Dr. Ragab founded CURE Childhood Cancer in Atlanta in 1975, shortly after leaving St. Louis, where he treated me. Unfortunately, I lost track of Dr. Ragab over the years and hadn’t talked to him since my wedding, which he attended in 1998. Kristin Connor, Executive Director of CURE, called me in 2017 and asked if I would be willing to present Dr. Ragab the Spirit of Hope Award at the Believe Ball. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. I was excited to see him again and honored to present him with an award to recognize his many contributions and his career dedicated to fighting childhood cancer. My parents flew to Atlanta, and we presented him the Spirt of Hope Award together as a surprise. As you can imagine, it was a powerfully emotional reunion. Unfortunately, Dr. Ragab lost his own battle with cancer less than a year later.

Due to Dr. Ragab’s tireless work, CURE has invested over $32 million over the last ten years in research to help save children like me. I joined CURE’s Board of Directors to help carry forward Dr. Ragab’s legacy and support CURE’s mission to cure childhood cancer in our lifetime. Until we achieve that mission, CURE will continue to support families during their most challenging time while advancing research that not only improves the outcomes for children but also reduces the life-long impact of today’s harsh treatments.

Dr. Ragab had an unwavering belief that childhood cancer can and will be conquered. It is this belief that saved my life and I will spend the remainder of it working to make his vision a reality. I hope you will join us in this critical mission!

With Hope,

Matthew Gephardt
President, CURE’s Board of Directors

Focusing on What You Can Control

By Amanda Baskin, LMSW | Water’s Edge Counseling

Recently, our nation recognized the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus being a part of our daily lives. This anniversary marked many changes – changes in what we wear to protect ourselves, changes in how our stores and restaurants operate, changes in our healthcare. Some of these changes were difficult and painful, bringing about loss and separation – especially for children with cancer and their families, who have experienced fear, grief, and a rapid increase in anxiety and depression. And now, a year later, we have seen another change: apathy.

This apathy stems from hopelessness and helplessness that many are feeling from the ongoing effects of the pandemic. While mental health was discussed often at the beginning of quarantines and pandemic protocols, we are now seeing the prolonged impact of anxiety and depression. Those who have felt despair for months are now beginning to question the point in addressing the issues they face.

The apathy can show in many ways: not keeping up with personal hygiene, not reaching out to others when in need of help, or not making plans or goals for the future. It often manifests as a reluctance to try to better one’s situation, feeling that no positive outcomes will result despite their efforts. This feeling of hopelessness can morph into the simple question of, “Why try if nothing’s going to change?”

Families fighting cancer often feel a loss of control, and the pandemic has served to intensify that feeling. We cannot control the pandemic or how others react to it. Focusing on what is in your control can help to alleviate this feeling of hopelessness, and in turn, apathy. Ultimately, all that is in your control is what you think, feel, or do. It is in your control to get up each morning, put on clothes and wash your face. It is in your control to contact a friend or loved one. It is in your control to set boundaries that protect your time and energy. While the triggering of depression or anxiety may not be within your control, how you handle it is. Breaking down your day into small decisions makes things feel more manageable. Instead of focusing on how to complete a list of 20 responsibilities, focus on one step at a time. This reduces feeling overwhelmed or hopeless, because instead of looking at the 19 things you can’t do, you are focusing on the one you can.

One of the most important things within your control is asking for help. If you or a loved one feel overwhelmed with anxiety or depression, reach out for help. Talking with those around you about your experience can alleviate some of the stress that has built up. As we lean on one another, we also help to lift each other. During this past year, the mental health field has been working to make services more accessible. From telehealth appointments to safety protocols for in-office sessions, there are options available to best address your mental health needs in safe and comfortable settings. Choose today to focus on what is in your control to address your mental health.

 

 

Amanda Baskin is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) in the state of Georgia. She received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology at Georgia College and State University, and a Masters in Social Work, and a Marriage and Family Therapy Certificate from the University of Georgia. She works for Water’s Edge Counseling in Savannah, GA.

Part of our Family

Hotel Equities is a hospitality management firm that manages several hotels in Georgia. The company is a faith-based organization whose core values center around twelve statements espousing kindness, integrity, and professional conduct. Hotel Equities believes in supporting local charitable organizations and years ago became a sponsor of Lauren’s Run and CURE Childhood Cancer Annual Picnic.

This relationship grew as CURE realized the need to start a lodging program that could provide hotel stays for families who must travel long distances for treatment. Hotel Equities quickly agreed to support this endeavor and introduced CURE to the management of the Residence Inn, which is situated near Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. This program became increasingly important during the pandemic as long-term stay facilities were forced to close.

Susan Zuppardo, Calvin Easter, and Rosa Ventura

“Because of our location, we are typically full,” said Susan Zuppardo, Regional Director of Sales for Hotel Equities. “But we always make room for a CURE family. And when a cancer patient stays for an extended period, the staff gets excited about the opportunity to give them a safe haven during a difficult time!”

While the hotel staff is committed to treating every guest like family, two little girls stand out. Raegan and Charli both suffered from the same rare brain cancer, and their families traveled to Atlanta for long-term treatment.

“These two girls and their families were amazing,” Susan said. “Even though their children were very sick, they always smiled and talked to everyone. Charli liked to have her car decorated, so we went and got special markers so we could draw on her windows.”

Raegan

Raegan and her family stayed at the Residence Inn for 12 weeks while she endured very difficult treatment. The entire staff worked hard to make the hotel a home away from home for them. Calvin, the hotel’s Chief Engineer, took ownership of being their personal shuttle service to and from treatment. There were days when he worked late, staying until he got the call to pick them up. Rosa, the property’s Executive Housekeeper, understood the anxiety of a cancer patient during COVID-19. So she always made sure everything was extra clean in their rooms. The love and care the family received at the hotel spread out even further.

“I followed their story on Facebook and talked about them to my family all the time,” Susan said. “When my sister in Connecticut heard Raegan loved unicorns, she ordered a special book for her. My mother came to visit and was heartbroken because Raegan wasn’t able to bring very many toys from home. So she went out and bought a kitchen playset for her to play with during her three-month stay.”

Both girls eventually succumbed to their disease, but the friendships built during their stays have endured.

“I’ve kept the pictures they drew me and get choked up sometimes when I look at them,”

said Susan. “They became a part of our family.” The sentiment goes both ways. Raegan’s parents, Marc and Andrea, said, “Susan and crew made the Residence Inn feel like home. What stood out was that they were genuine – no fake smiles or forced ‘How is Raegan doing?’ questions. They were genuinely concerned. They went above and beyond for us because that’s the kind of people they are. We are better people for knowing them.”

We are honored to be partners in philanthropy with such a generous company. Hotel Equities has become a very important part of how we ease the burdens of families fighting cancer.

“I can’t quit the kids”

Glance behind the scenes at CURE and you will find an entire team of staff, board members, parents of cancer patients, and others in the community who are working diligently to ensure we are doing everything we can to meet the needs of families of kids with cancer. CURE’s Patient and Family Services (PFS) committee meets regularly to discuss the needs of families, evaluate our current programs, and brainstorm about new ones that will help ease the burdens faced during and after treatment.

At a recent PFS committee meeting, one of the newest members introduced her motives for participation by saying, “I can’t quit the kids.”

Peggy Kerns is a retired nurse who spent 37 years caring for children with cancer. Originally from Chattanooga, TN, she studied at Samford before coming to Egleston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, where she worked side-by-side with CURE’s founder, Dr. Abdel Ragab.

“When I started in nursing, children weren’t surviving even leukemias that are very treatable today,” she recalled. “Treatment has changed so much over the years, but what never changes is the children. Even during the toughest days, the kids always find a way to be happy.”

Over the years, Peggy has worked with hundreds of children. She’s seen them grow up to become nurses, doctors, authors, and other types of professionals. She has also absorbed losses with their families – which she describes as the hardest part of her job.

“When you treat a child for months or years, they become part of your family,” Peggy said. “I didn’t have children of my own, but I’ve connected with so many families during a very difficult time. That has been my reward.”

Peggy’s dedication went beyond her job. She has volunteered at CURE events and for many years she has served meals to patients and their families through CURE’s Open Arms program. Her retirement three years ago left a void. So she joined CURE’s PFS committee to make sure families are getting what they need to cope with treatment.

“CURE is a bright light in so many lives during a very dark time, and I’m so glad to be a little part of it,” she said. “When you add cancer to the problems a family already has, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. We’re lucky to have CURE here in Georgia.”

And families are lucky to have dedicated nurses like Peggy. While fighting a Wilms tumor, Mitchell Odendahl was one of her patients. He is now a senior at Clemson University studying mechanical engineering, and his mother, Lisa, works for CURE.

“Peggy was Mitchell’s primary clinic nurse, and she was like a ray of sunshine,” Lisa said. “He was only 18 months old, and she was so good at putting him at ease. She became part of our family – even attending Mitchell’s second birthday party. It’s one of my greatest joys that I get to stay in contact with her through CURE! She’s a special lady.”

Peggy had opportunities to move into management over the years but turned them down because she knew her calling was to be by the bedside.

“Some people go through life without knowing what they are supposed to do,” Peggy said. “I’m fortunate that I found my purpose early.”

 

 

Lily’s Long Weekend

A long weekend usually involves rest and celebration. But last Labor Day was the longest of long weekends for Lily Suddeth and her family. Lily had just started preschool weeks before, and her teachers noticed that she was quiet and didn’t like to be put down – especially after nap time. Her parents thought she simply might be adjusting to her new routine and surroundings. But when she started waking up during the night, they decided to take her to the doctor.

“At first, our pediatrician suggested she might be teething,” recalled Lily’s mother, Allison. “But her coloring was off and a blood draw showed she was severely anemic. So they sent us to the hospital for further testing.”

Because of her doctor’s sense of urgency, Lily’s parents suspected she might have COVID. But as the long weekend progressed and more tests were ordered, it became apparent that they were dealing with something else entirely. On Tuesday, Lily was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and began her treatment.

“The situation was difficult because only one parent was able to be with the child in the hospital,” said Allison. “Since it was the height of the pandemic, we certainly understood the need for such rules. But my husband and I process information very differently, and it would have been helpful if both of us could have been there to support each other and ask questions.”

While they certainly had questions, this was not the first time the Suddeth family had dealt with cancer. Allison’s older brother, Daniel, was diagnosed with the same form of leukemia when he was two years old. She also has a cousin whose son recently finished his leukemia treatment and is a healthy seven-year-old. Both her mother and her cousin became invaluable resources for her in the early phase of treatment.

“I wasn’t born when Daniel was diagnosed, so I didn’t know all that went into his fight with cancer,” Allison said. “The treatment for ALL has changed since then. So it was great to have a cousin who had just been through it. Knowing both of them had survived gave us a great sense of hope and assurance that we could trust in God’s plan for Lily’s life.”

Lily reached remission after the first month of treatment, and her parents decided to enroll her in a clinical trial of a drug called Blinatumomab. This drug is usually given to patients if their cancer comes back after treatment. Studies have shown that receiving it during treatment can increase a patient’s initial survivability and prevent relapse. It proved difficult to administer to a patient so young, however.

“The medicine is typically held in a backpack and given 24 hours a day for 28 days,” Allison shared. “But Lily was too small for the backpack so she had to have a pack with a long cord. She got used to it in no time and actually came to like having mommy or daddy following her around all the time.”

Lily is doing great now. She spends most of her time trying to keep up with her older brother and sister and loves to play outside, ride her scooter, and swing. She should reach the less intensive stage of treatment before the fall so when Labor Day rolls around this year, Lily and her family can relax and enjoy the long weekend together.

 

Catherine’s Special Initiation

Catherine Williams could light up a room with her infectious smile, boundless energy, and natural leadership ability. She was an exceptional student, played varsity volleyball, and was a member of the Delta Upsilon Chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma at University of Georgia – even though she passed away shortly after graduating from high school.

During her junior year at North Atlanta High School, Catherine began to suffer knee pain. Since she was a volleyball player, her parents thought it was a sports-related issue. As the pain increased, Catherine tried physical therapy which didn’t help. She soon had an MRI that revealed a tumor on her left knee.

“Looking back, the tumor had been there a while,” Catherine’s mother, Anne, recalled. “By the time we found out she had osteosarcoma, the cancer was metastatic and had moved to her lungs.”

Catherine Williams

This was not Anne’s first brush with cancer. When she was pregnant with Catherine, her sister passed away after a battle with breast cancer. In fact, Catherine was named after the aunt she never met.

After chemotherapy, Catherine had surgery to remove the tumor and reconstruct her knee. The reconstruction never worked, however, and doctors were later forced to amputate her leg. That surgery was followed by more chemotherapy and radiation, which also proved to be ineffective. In March of 2020, Catherine was sent home without treatment options as the pandemic started to spread across the country.

“COVID was somewhat of an equalizer for Catherine,” Anne said. “All of her friends were out having fun and she couldn’t. But when quarantines hit, everyone had to stay at home.”

While she was at home, a hospice nurse discovered that Catherine hoped to join a sorority when she got to UGA that fall. Since both Anne and her mother had been Kappas in college, the nurse reached out to the University of Georgia chapter and got a welcome response.

“We have some members of our sorority who know Catherine’s family and had been following her treatment,” said Lilia Sullivan, the Philanthropy Chairman of Georgia’s Kappa chapter. “When we got the call, we contacted Kappa headquarters immediately and got their support. This unfortunate situation became a great way for the community to come together for Catherine.”

Lilia and Saville Sullivan

Lilia knows about the need for support for children with cancer. When she was sixteen, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Shockingly, three weeks later, her older sister, Saville, was diagnosed with a different type of brain tumor! They went through chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery together. Both sisters survived and are thriving today.

“My parents say that period in our lives was like an out-of-body experience,” Lilia recalled. “Everything we were going through was completely draining emotionally, physically, and mentally. I’m not sure how we would have done it without our faith and our family, friends, and neighbors in Albany.”

When the call went out about Catherine, local Kappas came to the William’s house, and members from all over the country attended on a Zoom connection as Catherine was initiated.

“It was a sweet and special afternoon,” said Anne. “It was also the last time Catherine was able to come downstairs.”

Catherine “Cappie” Williams died peacefully at home on June 2, 2020, after a courageous 13-month battle with osteosarcoma. She was 18 years old.

Although she was initiated into the sorority, she was unable to participate in the academic and social life that the rest of the Kappas enjoy. As Philanthropy Chairman, Lilia is determined to help build a legacy for Catherine in Athens – even though she never attended a class. To do this, the Kappa chapter is planning a run in her memory. The event is called “5k for Kappie” and will start at the Kappa house and finish at one of their favorite restaurants, Saucehouse Barbecue. The 5k will be held on Sunday, September 12, and proceeds will benefit CURE Childhood Cancer. Together, the University of Georgia chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma is proving that sisterhood knows no bounds.

If you would like to register for the 5K for Kappy, please click here.

Using our Immune Systems to Cure Cancer

By Chris Porter, MD
Pediatric Hematologist/Oncologist
Aflac Cancer & Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

 

Researchers have learned a great deal about how the human immune system can function as physiologic superheroes – able to prevent and cure diseases, including cancer. Like particularly cunning comic book villains, some cancers devise intricate plans to weaken their superhero foes – think kryptonite to Superman. In our lab, we have been investigating how blood cancer cells evade the immune system and have discovered that the cancer cells use a molecular kryptonite, called Siglec15, to weaken the immune cells. Fortunately, there may be ways to shield our immune cells and new ways to strengthen them, which we are actively pursuing every day.

Cancers derived from blood cells, including leukemia and lymphoma, are the most common cancers in children. Thanks to research, cure rates are better than ever. But cancer remains the leading cause of illness-related death in children. Thus, there is a need for better therapies, and understanding how cancer cells behave is critical to developing better medicines.

Dr. Chris Porter

A couple of years ago, our lab found that leukemia cells depend on a protein called calcineurin to evade immune cells. In the cell, calcineurin helps control the expression of a number of other proteins. One of the proteins that calcineurin controls is a signaling molecule, IL-12. This molecule is a member of a family of signaling proteins called cytokines. Researchers have known for a long time that IL-12 very strongly stimulates immune cells to kill cancer cells. However, IL-12 has not been an effective therapy, in part because it can cause several side effects. To get around this problem, we are collaborating with scientists at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Together we hope to develop a nanomedicine to deliver IL-12 exactly to where it needs to be, where immune cells interact with cancer cells. This will effectively give additional super-powers to help the immune cells eliminate the cancer cells.

In addition, we found that calcineurin controls the expression of Siglec15, a protein of which not much is known. Leukemia and lymphoma cells seem to make a lot of Siglec15, which we know can inhibit immune cells. In fact, children with leukemia have much higher levels of Siglec15 in their blood than healthy individuals. Now we are trying to understand how the leukemia and lymphoma cells make it and how it inhibits the immune cells. In addition, we are working with a drug company that makes a medicine that can block Siglec15, which could act as a forcefield for the immune cells.

Thus, with funding from CURE, we are making great strides in figuring out ways to strengthen and protect immune cells, which should let these superheroes destroy the villainous cancer cells.

 

 

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