A Six-Month Childhood Cancer Research Progress Report from the Dream Team

by St. Baldrick's Foundation
April 7, 2014

Formerly known as the St. Baldrick’s – Stand Up to Cancer Pediatric Cancer Dream Team, this team is now the St. Baldrick’s EPICC Team (Empowering Pediatric Immunotherapies for Childhood Cancer).

Dr. Crystal L. Mackall and Dr. John M. Maris, co-chairs of the Stand Up to Cancer – St. Baldrick’s Pediatric Cancer Dream Team, explain the Dream Team’s children’s cancer research goals and how they’ve been working to meet them.

Stand Up to Cancer - St. Baldrick's Pediatric Cancer Dream Team Update
The Dream Team: Background

Cure rates for childhood cancer haven’t improved for the last 20 years, and for some childhood cancers, less than 20% of patients survive. Current treatments for childhood cancer often cause lifelong side effects. We need new, more effective treatments for childhood cancers.

Cancer genomics is the field of research designed to define the genetic reasons that cancer arises in the first place, and behaves aggressively in some patients.

Immunotherapy is an approach to treating cancer that harnesses the power of the body’s immune system to kill cancer cells.

Pediatric cancer researchers in both fields have made exciting recent advances, but historically these have occurred in parallel with little cross-fertilization.

The St. Baldrick’s – Stand Up to Cancer Pediatric Cancer Dream Team is made up of researchers from seven institutions in North America whose goal is to create new immune-based therapies for pediatric cancer based on the individual patient’s tumor genomics and what makes the cancer cells different from the rest of the body.

The Dream Team was launched in July 2013 and will work together on this problem for four years. The research brings together experts who study the genetic abnormalities that drive and sustain cancer cells, with experts in immunology who study the human immune system.

This is the first time that researchers from these two distinct fields have come together to battle the problem of childhood cancer.

The Dream Team works simultaneously on three separate aims:

  1. Discover targets on childhood cancers that the immune system can recognize and use to kill the cancer cell.
  2. Create new immune treatments that kill pediatric cancers. These new treatments come in two different flavors:
    • In the first, T cells are genetically engineered to express as “killer receptors” (called chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs).
    • In the second, antibodies are armed with toxins to kill the cancers.
  3. Conduct clinical trials of new immunotherapies for childhood cancer.

Six-Month Progress Report (January 2014)

In the six months since the Dream Team was launched, substantial progress has been made and some early exciting results are reported.

  1. Large numbers of tumor samples have been acquired from a variety of sources that will serve as the basis for discovering new targets.
  2. Investigators have identified that ALK, a target already identified in neuroblastoma, could also serve as a target for some childhood brain tumors and sarcomas.
  3. Investigators have discovered that a protein derived from the malaria parasite binds a large number of pediatric cancers and could be used for immune targeting. (This means the malaria protein recognizes and attaches to the tumor, so if it is armed with a weapon – either the T cell or a toxin – it can then kill the tumor.)
  4. Several clinical trials have used T cells engineered to express a “killer receptor” for refractory, or treatment-resistant, acute lymphoblastic leukemia. An amazing 70 to 90% of patients treated on these trials have gone into remission after treatment with these cells. (Results are still preliminary and it will take time to follow up and determine how long the responses will last and to better understand the side effects of this new approach.)
  5. Investigators have discovered new ways to engineer T cells with killer receptors that allow the cells to recognize multiple targets at the same time. These “double killer” cells may be more potent against childhood cancer.

The Dream Team is supported by donations from people like you. Help fund pediatric cancer research.

Fund Research

Read more about kids’ cancer research funded by St. Baldrick’s: