Baylor College of Medicine pediatric oncologist Dr. Carl Allen has received two recent awards for his research on a rare disease called Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH).

Allen, assistant professor of pediatrics – hematology/oncology at BCM, earned a Scholar Award from the American Society of Hematology and the Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology.

He leads the Histiocytosis Research Program at Texas Children's Cancer Center and is a physician with the Histiocytosis Program there, along with program director Dr. Ken McClain, professor of pediatrics – hematology/oncology at BCM. The program sees nearly 100 new patients annually with about 400 active patients, making it the largest histiocytosis center in the country.

Biological basis of LCH

The awards recognize Allen's research studying the biological basis of LCH, which is primarily a pediatric disease that results from tumors and lesions composed of different types of white blood cells. Patients with this disease have too many white blood cells called histiocytes, or Langerhans cells, that often accumulate in different organs in the body forming the tumors and lesions.

"LCH is a notoriously difficult disease to study due to rare occurrence and lack of cell culture systems and animal models," Allen said. "These awards reflect the importance of understanding the causes of LCH to the hematology-oncology community as well as to families who struggle with the disease."

At the Histiocytosis Program at Texas Children's Cancer Center, Allen and McClain are able to study biopsy samples from patients. They recently published the results of a cell-specific gene expression project that suggest LCH may not arise from epidermal Langerhans cells at all, but rather from a circulating precursor cell. The findings appeared in the Journal of Immunology. Future work will focus on identify the true cellular culprit causing LCH.

Looking for better therapies

The condition can affect different systems within the body, including the skin, bones, brain, gastrointestinal system, major organs, mouth and ears. Patients with multisystem disease that is resistant to conventional chemotherapy have poor outcomes, Allen said. Understanding the causes of LCH is essential to find better therapies.

The American Society of Hematology Scholar Awards support hematologists who have chosen a career in research. Allen's award is for $150,000 over two years. Recipients of the American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology award are chosen by evaluation of abstracts presented at the organization's annual meeting. It includes a $1,000 prize. Allen also received the Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2008. This one-year, $50,000 award promotes quality research in clinical oncology.

"Dr. Allen is probably one of only a very small number of individuals who have received all three of these young investigator awards," McClain said. "His extraordinary research abilities have opened a new era of investigations into orphan diseases for which little progress has been made toward understanding the basic biology in many years."