$15 Million Grant Supports WashU Research for Personalized Leukemia Therapies

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology

    Washington University investigators at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are using a $15 million grant from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to better understand the genetic changes that drive acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a deadly blood cancer. The funding also supports research to predict patients’ responses to therapy. The findings may enable investigators to develop more effective therapies tailored to patients, based on the genetic characteristics of their cancer cells.

    The $15 million is from a program project grant, which supports integrated research projects around a single type of cancer. Funding for the “Genomics of AML” program project grant originally was awarded to this group of Washington University investigators in 2003 and was renewed in 2019 for the third time.

    Funding from this grant, and from a direct gift from Alvin Siteman, allowed this group to sequence the first human cancer genomes from AML patients in 2008 and 2009, setting the stage for the entire field of cancer genomics.

    “This grant is having a direct impact on how we approach patients,” said principal investigator Timothy J. Ley, MD, the Lewis T. and Rosalind B. Apple Professor of Medicine. “Today, every single patient with AML who comes to Siteman gets some kind of genetic analysis for their cancer. The mutations in their leukemia cells help physicians select the best treatment option.”

    In 2018, the School of Medicine was also awarded a near $12 million grant for leukemia – a Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant, making Washington University a national hub for innovative leukemia research and leadership in developing new therapies for leukemia patients.

    The latest grant supports four research projects:

    • Led by Ley, the first project will examine the genetic and epigenetic characteristics of intermediate-risk AML, the most common type. It is also the type that poses the most challenges in predicting how well patients will do after undergoing standard therapy. This project also strives to uncover better predictors of relapse.
    • The second project examines ways to improve patient responses to stem cell transplantation, seeking ways to boost the way the transplanted immune cells attack the patients’ AML.
    • The third project will focus on the genetics and epigenetics of a different but closely related disease called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) that is slow-growing but sometimes progresses to AML.
    • Led byDaniel C. Link, MD, the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor of Medicine (featured in HEC’s video story), the fourth project will focus on understanding the genetic and epigenetic changes in an important gene called TP53, which often drives AML and has an impact on patient prognosis.

    The four projects are supported by four core research resources that integrate the activities of the program project grant.

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