Search for a Cure

By Meleah Maynard

In pediatric oncology labs 1,500 miles apart, two Carleton grads are helping transform children’s cancer treatment.

cancer patient

Childhood cancer is rare. But for children in the United States who live past infancy, it persists as the leading cause of death due to disease. Fortunately, improved treatments have increased survival rates dramatically over the past four decades—from fewer than half of children surviving five years after diagnosis in 1975 to more than 80 percent being cured today.

Lia Gore ’87The reason for this good news is simple, says pediatric oncologist Lia Gore ’87: doctors who treat pediatric cancer are uncommonly cooperative. “About 15,780 pediatric cases were diagnosed in the United States last year, compared with 1.6 million cases in adults, so any one hospital sees a relatively small number of patients,” she says. “We all know we need to collaborate and share information because no one institution can tackle these issues alone.”

Gore, who is recognized internationally for her research in experimental therapies for childhood cancers, currently heads the hematology/oncology bone marrow transplant division at Children’s Hospital Colorado and the University of Colorado Cancer Center. Among the many colleagues with whom she shares her research findings is former classmate Linda McAllister-Lucas ’87, head of the hematology oncology department at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Though Gore majored in psychology at Carleton and McAllister-Lucas studied chemistry, the two knew each other through mutual friends. Today they run into each other at meetings and conferences, and through their membership in the Children’s Oncology Group, through which 99 percent of pediatric oncologists across the country run organized clinical trials.

In addition to their research, Gore and McAllister-Lucas spend much of their time treating children with cancer. They are optimistic about future treatment options, but they also acknowledge that there is much more work to be done.

Standard treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, don’t work for about 20 percent of childhood cancers, which commonly include leukemia, brain and central nervous system tumors, and lymphomas. And even kids who survive treatment are often left with cognitive and neurological damage, as well as other lifelong health issues. Recognizing that every person and every cancer is different, pediatric oncology researchers are looking to move away from generic treatments in favor of immunotherapy targeted to a patient’s individual needs, which may spare some kids from the side effects and futility of treatments that can’t help them.

Linda McAllister-Lucas ’87In her lab, McAllister-Lucas focuses on rare lymphomas, which she studies with her husband, Peter Lucas ’87, a professor of pathology and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh. The couple, who met at Carleton, are particularly interested in the molecular basis of lymphomas, and she is specifically looking at B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  

The goal is to understand how the activity of three main proteins (Carma1, BCL10, and MALT1) are regulated and use that knowledge to find new ways to intervene and treat lymphomas that are caused when these proteins become overactive. “If we can block that activity with a drug, we may be able to halt the process that causes cancer cells to proliferate,” says McAllister-Lucas. “We are right on the cusp of being able to cure more patients.”

So while McAllister-Lucas’s work is all about preclinical biochemical studies to help understand the science behind cancer-fighting drugs, Gore’s research translates those and similar studies into clinical trials of specific drugs. One of her areas of focus is immunotherapy, which harnesses the power of the human immune system to fight cancer. Much of her research has focused on leukemia, but the knowledge she gleans on how the immune system targets cancer cells as foreign invaders could be useful in the fight against other cancers as well.

“Every day researchers are developing really cool things in cancer therapy that are specific to killing cancer cells while causing less damage to a growing child,” says Gore. “It’s a very intricate process, and a very exciting time.”

 

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