Research and Training Grants in Childhood Cancer

The American Cancer Society funds scientists and medical professionals who research cancer or train at medical schools, universities, research institutes, and hospitals throughout the United States. We use a rigorous and independent peer review process to select the most innovative research projects to fund. 

Spotlight on Childhood Cancer Grantees

Here are some examples of the research areas and scientists the American Cancer Society funds. These investigators are working to find answers that will save more lives from childhood cancer and improve the quality of life of patients and their families.  

On the Trail of Immunotherapy to Treat Neuroblastoma in Kids

Grantee: Andras Heczey, MD
Institution: Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston
Focus Area: Leukemia, Immunology, and Blood Cell Development
Research Phase: Preclinical and Translational 
Term: 1/1/2016 to 12/31/2019

Dr. Heczey’s goal is to improve treatment for children with neuroblastoma. It’s the 3rd most common cancer in children. Its current treatment causes significant short- and long-term side effects.

Heczey’s team works with immune cells in the blood called Natural Killer T-lymphocytes (NKTs). NKTs attack noncancerous cells that support a neuroblastoma tumor. In previous studies, Heczey’s team showed that they can engineer an NKT to kill cancer cells by adding a molecule to it called CAR.GD2. Together, as CAR-NKT, this cancer-targeting molecule kills both cancer cells and the cells that help them grow.

With his grant, Heczey and his team will test their engineered NKTs in children with neuroblastoma for the first time in a phase 1 clinical trial. If this treatment proves to be safe and effective, it could change the lives of kids with neuroblastoma, and ultimately for kids and adults with other types of cancer. Heczey's research is being funded by TODAY show viewers through the “Shine a Light” campaign and subsidized by the American Cancer Society.

To learn more, read: New Hope for Kids with Neuroblastoma.

New Mouse Model Allows First-Time Drug Tests Against 2 Resistant Types of ALL in Kids

Grantee: David Teachey, MD
Institution: The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
Focus Area: Cancer Drug Discovery
Research Phase: Preclinical Research, Mouse Model
Term: 7/1/2014 to 6/30/2018

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common childhood cancer. And, recent research found two new subtypes that are very resistant to current medicines. They’re called Philadelphia chromosome-like ALL (Ph-like ALL) and early T-cell precursor ALL (ETP ALL). Until recently, there was no way to study either Ph-like ALL or ETP ALL. Then, Teachey established a mouse model to test drugs against these types of ALL in the lab. Early results in mice have already shown that some drugs work, though they still need more testing. Their hope is that this research will lead to new treatments for kids with resistant types of ALL. 

Read more about Teachey's work

New Combination Targeted Therapies for Neuroblastoma and Ewing’s Sarcoma in Children

Grantee: Anthony Faber, PhD
Institution: Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia
Focus Area: Cancer Drug Discovery
Research Phase: Preclinical Research, Mouse Model
Term: 7/1/2016 to 6/30/2020

Targeted therapies have revolutionized how cancer is treated. They can be less toxic because they home in on specific proteins in a cell. So far, none of these drugs can treat 2 deadly childhood cancers, neuroblastoma and Ewing’s sarcoma. Faber’s research aims to fill this treatment gap.

Neuroblastoma is the leading cause of cancer deaths in children ages 1 to 4. In earlier lab studies, Faber’s team combined 2 drugs for a targeted therapy that kills neuroblastoma cells. In mice, the drug combo shrunk tumors, and in some instances, cured mice of cancer. The mice also didn’t show any overt signs of toxicity. That suggests these drugs may be well tolerated by children with neuroblastoma.

Using a similar strategy, Faber’s team developed a combination targeted therapy for Ewing sarcoma, a deadly cancer that affects children and teens. With their grant, they will further develop these drugs. By testing them in mice, they intend to provide preclinical justification for human clinical trials.

Early Studies to Find Effective Treatment for Certain Unremovable Brain Tumors in Kids

Grantee: Oren Becher, MD
Institution: Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois
Focus Area: Tumor Biology and Genomics
Research Phase: Preclinical Research, Mouse Model
Term: 1/1/2017 to 12/31/2020

The young children with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) usually live less than a year after the brain cancer is found. The standard of care in the United States hasn’t changed since the 1970s. Yet, this cancer is still understudied. The problem is that surgeons can’t remove the tumor because of the way it grows around the brain stem. That means there is limited DIPG tissue available for research. No medications have proven successful either.

Dr. Becher has already moved the research forward. His team developed a mouse model that includes an abnormal histone found in most DIPGs. A histone is a type of protein in chromosomes. A normal histone acts as a switch to turn genes on and off at the right time and in the right cells.

Becher and his team will use his grant to learn more about how DIPG tumors form. Using their mouse model, they’ll study which genes the abnormal histone inappropriately turns on or off. The goal is to learn enough to find new treatment strategies for this deadly tumor.

Digital “Pain Buddy” May Help Ease Pain and Stress in Kids with Cancer

Grantee: Michelle Fortier, PhD
Institution: University of California, Irvine
Focus Area: Palliative Care and Symptom Management
Research Phase: Technology Development, Randomized Study
Term: 1/1/2013 to 12/31/2017

Many children who have cancer don’t have a strong enough understanding of pain to be able to talk about it. This can lead to poorly managed pain and other symptoms, which can cause distress and a poorer quality of life. Fortier is a licensed clinical psychologist. Her goal is to close this knowledge gap with mobile technology.

Pain Buddy is a digital tool for kids to use to track their pain and symptoms. The diary information will be immediately accessible by the child’s cancer team, allowing them to act when needed. Pain Buddy will also teach kids about ways to think about pain and ways to change their behavior that may help ease symptoms. This study has the potential to improve the quality of life in the 12,000 kids who are diagnosed with cancer each year.  

Read more about Fortier's work.

Improving Relationships Between Parents and Their Child’s Cancer Doctor

Grantee: Jennifer Mack, MD, MPH
Institution: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston
Focus Area: Palliative Care and Symptom Management
Research Phase: Pilot Study
Term: 1/1/2015 to 12/31/2018

Dr. Mack’s research focuses on improving the relationship between doctors and the parents of a child who has cancer. Poor relationships can cause miscommunication and anxiety. They can also lead to unnecessary medical care, which can be a problem for patients and can lead to an inefficient use of healthcare resources.

Mack’s team will study relationships that are working well and ones that are difficult. Her goal is to learn strategies to identify and repair difficult relationships between parents and cancer care teams. The next step will be to design interventions to prevent or ease this common source of distress. And then she’ll put those interventions into practice.

Targeting Cell Survival Signals in T-ALL May Lead to Less Toxic Treatment for Kids

Grantee: Todd Triplett, PhD
Institution: University of Texas at Austin
Focus Area: Tumor Biology and Genomics
Research Phase: Basic Research
Term: 1/1/2015 to 12/31/2017

Triplett studies T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) with the goal of discovering new drugs that are more effective and less toxic. T-ALL is a blood cancer in children. It has cure rates of up to 75% after treatment with extensive radiation and chemotherapy. The problem is those treatments often cause ongoing side effects. Plus, alternative treatments aren’t available for kids who don’t respond to traditional treatment.

In the lab, Triplett’s team discovered:

  • Blocking certain signaling pathways in mouse leukemia cells causes the cancer cells to rapidly die.
  • Certain accessory cells give off signals to help the leukemia survive.

With his grant, Triplett and his team will move from working with mouse cells in the lab to treating mice who have T-ALL. They want to see if their previous treatment approach will inhibit the signaling pathways and shut off the leukemia cell’s survival signals. Triplett’s work may be an important step on the path to human clinical trials.

Stopping Cholesterol Production May Treat Certain Brain Tumors in Kids

Grantee: Zeng-jie Yang, MD, PhD
Institution: Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia
Focus Area: Nutrition, the Environment, and Cancer
Research Phase: Translational
Term: 7/1/2016 to 6/30/2020

Medulloblastoma is the most common type of brain tumor in children. Treatment has improved, yet a significant number of patients die. Even survivors have severe side effects from aggressive treatments. Children can be left with hormonal issues and problems with thinking. In earlier studies, Dr. Yang’s team learned that cholesterol is required for medulloblastoma to grow.

With his grant, Yang’s research team will further study how cholesterol affects tumor growth. They’ll also test cholesterol inhibitors to treat this brain cancer. It’s a promising strategy since cholesterol inhibitors are safe, low cost, and readably available.

Enhancing Quality of Life in Cancer Care

Grantee: Sean Morrison, PhD
Institution: Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Focus Area: Palliative Care and Symptom Management
Term: 7/1/2014 to 6/30/2019

Dr. Morrison, a palliative care expert at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and director of the Lilian and Benjamin Hertzberg Palliative Care Institute and the National Palliative Care Research Center has spent his career working to improve and increase the availability of palliative care. Morrison is now working to do even more to enhance this type of care for cancer patients.

With his grant, Morrison will work to expand two programs. One of these is dedicated to funding researchers in the area of pediatric palliative cancer care. Morrison’s goals are to generate much-needed research in this area and to encourage young researchers to come into the field.

From Our Researchers

The American Cancer Society employs a staff of full-time researchers who pursue answers that help us understand how to prevent, find, and treat cancer, including childhood cancer.