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Dr. David Poplack, director of Texas Children’s Cancer Center and professor of pediatric oncology at Baylor

Five pediatric oncologists at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Cancer Center have received 2016 grants from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation for projects ranging from the study of a gene mutation involved in the rare cancer Langerhans cell histiocytosis to research focused on using and enhancing the body's own immune system to destroy cancer cells.

Theirs are among the 79 new grants announced, totaling more than $22 million in funding from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, the largest private funder of childhood cancer research grants.

“Our pediatric oncologists and researchers are developing innovative therapies for all forms of childhood cancer and blood disorders,” said Dr. David Poplack, director of Texas Children’s Cancer Center and professor of pediatric oncology at Baylor. “We are grateful for the support of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which enables our researchers to study the biology of childhood cancers and pursue new treatment approaches.”

The Baylor and Texas Children’s Cancer Center grant recipients are:

Dr. Maria Monica Gramatges, assistant professor of pediatrics – oncology, was awarded an additional year of her St. Baldrick’s Scholar award, originally awarded in 2012. Her research investigates genetic markers that characterize the subpopulation of children and young adults with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) who are at risk for severe treatment-related toxicities – about 80 percent of the patients with AML. Validation of these markers may lead to screenings for patients newly diagnosed with the disease, and in cases where the markers are discovered, modifications to the treatment regimen and closer monitoring to reduce treatment-related complications. Read more about Gramatges’ work published recently in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Dr. Joseph Lubega, assistant professor of pediatrics – oncology, was awarded an additional year of funding for his International Scholar award, originally funded in 2013. Lubega is part of the Global Program at Texas Children’s Cancer Center, where his work focuses on Burkitt’s lymphoma. A third of cancers in children in Africa are due to Burkitt’s lymphoma, which is believed to arise from the body’s attempt to fight the Epstein-Barr virus and malaria infections. He is leading a study in his native Uganda that measures infection-fighting proteins in children with and without Burkitt’s lymphoma. The goal is to discover if these proteins found in blood or saliva can be used as specific indicators of the disease and serve as the basis for clinical tests for early detection and monitoring of children with this cancer.

Dr. Robin Parihar, an instructor of pediatrics-oncology, is an established St. Baldrick’s Fellow and was awarded an additional year of support. His research interests center around finding new ways to enhance the body’s own immune system to detect and destroy cancer, particularly solid tumors. His current research is focused on enhancement of Natural Killer T cell function with chimeric receptors that target aspects of the solid tumor microenvironment that supports tumor growth. Parihar also is part of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor, Texas Children’s Hospital and Houston Methodist.

Dr. Nino Rainusso, assistant professor of pediatrics – oncology, was awarded, based on progress to date,  the Alan’s Sarcoma Research Fund St. Baldrick’s Scholar award, named in honor of St. Baldrick’s 2014 Ambassador Alan Sanders. His research aims to identify, characterize and selectively eliminate cancer stem cells that drive the metastatic process in pediatric sarcomas. Rainusso is also testing if the patients’ body immune system can kill cancer cells in pediatric sarcomas

Dr. Daniel Zinn, clinical postdoctoral fellow at Texas Children’s Cancer Center, was named at St. Baldrick’s Fellow, and the award will support his research on Langerhans cell histiocytosis, a cancer of the immune cells that can cause a wide range of symptoms, from a rash to multi-organ disease. He is investigating the causes of LCH in order to develop the most effective and safe therapies for each patient, and is focused on the theory that a patient’s symptoms are determined by specific gene and cell mutations.

Watch a St. Baldrick’s video on the 2016 summer grants, which includes a brief interview with Zinn.