Three School of Medicine researchers receive awards to study pediatric cancer

Liora Schultz
Liora Schultz

“Cancer research is fraught by a constant flux of challenge and promise. The process requires great patience and persistence,” says LIORA SCHULTZ, an instructor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine.

Schultz’s patience and persistence, as well as the research of her School of Medicine colleagues, KARA DAVIS, instructor of pediatrics, and MELISSA MAVERS, a post-doc medical fellow, was recently honored with grants from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation to study pediatric cancer.

Davis was awarded $115,000 to study the differences between acute lymphoblastic leukemia cells and normal developing blood cells. The study will combine single-cell measurements of childhood leukemia samples and healthy bone marrow with machine-learning techniques to identify cells associated with relapse at the time of diagnosis.

“The goal of this research is to identify cancer cells at the time of diagnosis that are associated with future relapse with the hope to understand what makes these cells capable of causing relapse,” says Davis.

Kara Davis
Kara Davis

Mavers was awarded $195,000 from the foundation’s Rays of Hope Hero Fund to study methods to improve stem cell transplantation so that the likelihood of graft–vs.–host disease is reduced while maintaining the graft–vs.–leukemia effect.

“Many children with cancer cannot be cured with chemotherapy alone and must undergo stem cell transplantations (sometimes know as bone marrow transplantation),” Mavers explains. “This treatment permits very high doses of chemotherapy to cure the cancer then rebuilds the immune system, which is destroyed by such high chemotherapy doses.”

Schultz was awarded $330,000 to develop targeted methods to disrupt the inhibition of anti-tumor cells.

Melissa Mavers
Melissa Mavers

“Our immune system is made up of potent fighter cells that have the capacity to eradicated unwanted entities such as infection and tumor,” Schultz says. “There are opposing checks and balances that quiet these fighter cells and prevent our immune system from controlling cancer. My research is aimed at developing creative ways to target and kill a subset of cells that prevent the good fighter cells from effectively killing cancer cells.”

Pediatric cancer, research and treatment can be a psychologically difficult path to take. All three researchers say they find comfort in knowing their work will make a difference.

“Doing research helps me feel hopeful for the future by doing work that may have future impact on patient outcomes,” says Davis.