Known as a master of medical discoveries, Kevin Bunting, M.D., currently is studying a single molecule that may help him achieve his goal of curing several childhood cancers and other diseases. Dr. Bunting is a CURE funded researcher at the Aflac Cancer Center and Blood Disorders Service of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
The focus of Dr. Bunting’s research is to understand how healthy and abnormal blood stem cells develop at the molecular level. He is working toward finding less toxic, more therapeutic treatment options for childhood cancers and other diseases which affect much of the population.
For example, in children from birth to age 14, leukemia accounts for about 31 percent of all cancers. Meanwhile, 400 infants are born with hemophilia each year, and sickle cell disease affects between 70,000 and 100,000 Americans annually.
Today, the most common form of treatment for these diseases is radiation, which often destroys both the abnormal cells and surrounding healthy cells. Patients are left with dangerously low levels of immunity and extremely toxic side effects.
Dr. Bunting specializes in studying a molecule called STAT5, which shows great promise as a treatment which would greatly reduce unwanted side effects. In fact, STAT5 could lead to a revolutionary treatment of the previously mentioned childhood diseases, among many others.
Known as a transcription factor, the STAT5 molecule regulates the functions of many other important molecules. These other molecules determine how well stem cells reside in bone marrow and how quickly they duplicate.
By removing or changing STAT5 in some way, Dr. Bunting has discovered the remaining STAT5-deficient cells can survive and continue to reproduce healthy cells—while losing the ability to reproduce abnormal cells. Dr. Bunting quickly realized the potential magnitude of this discovery—to develop an actual cure for blood disorders, pediatric cancers and other illnesses in children.
By eliminating STAT5, it even may be possible to graft healthy stem cells where cancerous tissues were previously located. Dr. Bunting said of this technique, “I study how you get existing stem cells to leave and die and allow the new ones to take their place—basically it’s musical chairs.”
If STAT5 molecules can be reduced or eliminated in bone marrow, it would allow a physician to prune out only the bad stem cells (like a gardener) instead of bulldozing through both the bad and surrounding healthy stem cells (like a landscaper).
“Right now,” said Dr. Bunting, “radiation wipes out everything.” But this potential new treatment would reverse this unwanted effect, producing a much less toxic treatment that does not damage the DNA. In the future, it could also have many more medical uses. For example, it could be adapted to reduce the risk of rejection in solid organ transplants.
As part of his ongoing research, Dr. Bunting regularly shares information with the several other labs also studying STAT5 across the country. By doing this, researchers can share information, avoid duplicating their efforts and shorten the amount of time it will take to find a viable, STAT5-based treatment option. CURE is highly supportive of these collaborative efforts.
Since his discovery of the role of STAT5, Dr. Bunting has been studying readily available drugs to find candidates that can recreate the STAT5-deficient effect in cells, and has recently received a grant from CURE to explore targeted therapies using FDA-approved drugs. Dr. Bunting hopes to identify new therapeutic drug combinations that can mimic a STAT5 deficiency in the blood stem cells, thereby curing these diseases in live test subjects.
Other doctors are now basing their research efforts on Dr. Bunting’s initial findings regarding STAT5. For example, Zhengqi Wang, Ph.D., is also studying the STAT5 molecule and its regulation of healthy versus abnormal stem cells. Like Dr. Bunting, Dr. Wang is a researcher at the Aflac Cancer Center of Children’s.
Dr. Wang’s research builds on Dr. Bunting’s work by focusing specifically on STAT5-driven leukemias. Dr. Wang hopes to identify new therapeutic drug combinations which can mimic a STAT5 deficiency in blood stem cells that cures leukemia.