When the St. Baldrick’s Foundation — Stand Up 2 Cancer Pediatric Cancer Dream Team was created in 2013, the idea was to pursue breakthroughs, specifically in the area of immunotherapy enabled by the application of modern genomic technologies. Now, with St. Baldrick’s as the primary funder and each member institution also investing financially — the Dream Team looks to build on the tremendous momentum in immunotherapy for childhood cancers.
According to the SU2C website, “Dream Teams foster collaboration, bringing together a variety of disciplines and enabling former competitors to put their collective knowledge towards problem-solving. Dream Teams practice a translational approach to research, where findings are not restricted to the lab and are converted into lifesaving treatments.” Collaboration has always been key in pediatric cancer research, and that has helped propel this Dream Team’s work forward.
Specifically for this group, there’s now a drive to take some successes– such as the FDA approval of the drug Kymriah for treatment of some leukemias– and apply them to solid malignancies.
But none of it can happen without two things: teamwork and leadership.
The Job Description of a Dream Team Leader
“I’m a professional cat herder and a professional team builder.” So says Dr. John Maris, co-leader of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation – Stand Up 2 Cancer Pediatric Cancer Dream Team.
Dr. Maris, of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, heads up the Dream Team with co-leader Dr. Crystal Mackall, who is with Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
The job of cat herder isn’t actually part of the remit for the Dream Team leaders, and it’s a little more involved than that.
“What Crystal and I do is see the opportunities afforded to us by this collaboration and we put the pieces together. It’s our job, for example, to connect an investigator at Stanford with an investigator at the University of Wisconsin to see how they can collaborate together because they have complementary talents, complementary expertise, and to really build new relationships, new programs.”
Cancer Research Connections Throughout the Continent
The Dream Team has expanded and now includes researchers at ten institutions throughout North America — eight in the U.S. and two in Canada:
- BC Cancer Agency (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada)
- Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
- National Cancer Institute (Washington, DC)
- The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
- Seattle Children’s Research Institute
- SickKids (Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
- Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital (Stanford University)
- Texas Children’s Cancer Center (Houston)
- University of Colorado (Denver)
- University of Wisconsin, Madison
In addition to monthly calls and ongoing collaboration, the Dream Team meets in person twice a year for a scientific review and to decide on next steps, and recently conducted its second 2019 meeting at CHOP in Philadelphia.
One important aspect of the Dream Team is the role of patient advocates. These advocates are individuals who have been touched by childhood cancer, with most of them having a child who passed away. The advocates are paired with young investigators on the Dream Team, to help better translate the research into everyday language, and to help the researchers better understand the specific needs of families as they work on the challenge of treating cancer in children. (Look for more on the role of the patient advocates later this month on the blog.)
Phase Two: Can This Therapy Work on Solid Tumors?
Dr. Mackall puts it simply: “Our goal is to change the way we treat childhood cancers by using our children’s immune systems to treat their tumors. And in doing so, curing more children and doing it with less toxicity.”
After the remarkable progress made so far in blood cancers, the Dream Team is now focusing more effort on putting this concept to work for solid tumors.
Getting to that next phase, which Dr. Maris calls “cracking a really tough egg,” requires an understanding why there was success with leukemias, but not with solid tumors. Dr. Maris says, “In the early days of our Dream Team, many of the cancers that occur in the brain or elsewhere in the body — the non-leukemias — resisted our new immunotherapies. But across our Dream Team, we’ve seen examples of prolonging life in children with highly refractory solid malignancies. There are many advances in our laboratories that we’re just now getting to the clinic. So, we’re very excited about the whole concept of providing more precise, more effective treatments for children with cancer.”
Teamwork Makes the Dream (Team) Work
As the Dream Team continues its work, and sets its sights squarely on solid tumors, teamwork will lead to more breakthroughs. Dr. Mackall stated, “The vision that we had in creating the Pediatric Cancers Dream Team rested heavily on that long tradition of collaboration. We knew that if we didn’t work together with our colleagues across North America we were going to be spinning in silos, repeating failures, and just not moving progress together as quickly. This is very integral to the way we think about doing research in pediatric oncology.”
Dr. Maris added, “And that is what the Dream Team is. It is a large collaborative effort and I’m lucky enough to be one of the ones to try to put those pieces together.”
Help fund initiatives such as the Dream Team with a donation to St. Baldrick’s and #DFYchildhoodCancers today.