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 and training proposals to fund. 

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Total Childhood Cancer Grants in Effect as of March 1, 2020

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Total Childhood Cancer Grant Funding in Effect as of March 1, 2020

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.  

Teaching Hope and Strength to Young People with Advanced Cancer

Grantee: Abby Rosenberg, MD, MS, MA
Institution: Seattle Children’s Hospital
Area of Research: Palliative Care and Symptom Management
Grant Term: 1/1/2018 to 12/31/2021

The Challenge: Young people with cancer are less likely to go to college, live independently, have a job, and form close relationships. Abby Rosenberg, MD, MS, MA, and her team have a program to help improve the quality of life for cancer patients ages 12 to 25. It’s called PRISM, which stands for Promoting Resilience in Stress Management. Rosenberg’s testing these skill-building sessions with young patients in a clinical trial that’s showing positive results. Based on feedback from the clinical trial, now their goal is to refine PRISM so it’s more relevant to the needs of young people with advanced cancer, which is cancer that has progressed or recurred and is not considered curable.

The Research: To learn how to target the training, Rosenberg's team is interviewing young people whose cancer advanced before or while they participated in a PRISM clinical trial. Once the team has a PRISM-Advanced Cancer design, they’ll test it against the usual supportive care in a pilot study.

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: Rosenberg’s team believes that young people in the advanced-cancer PRISM program will report feeling more resilience and hope, with less anxiety and depression. In the short-term, findings from these projects will inform larger clinical trials with PRISM. In the long-term, this work has the potential to improve standards of care and the well-being of young cancer patients and their families.

Listen to our podcast with Abby Rosenberg, MD, MS, MA to hear how she and her team are helping young people gain the individual, community, and existential resources they need to address important questions like: Why is this happening to me? What does this mean for me and my life? How does this change my identity and what I have been envisioning for my future?

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
Term: 1/1/2016 to 12/31/2019

The Challenge: Neuroblastoma is the most common cancer in infants, with the average age of diagnosis between 1 and 2 years. Its current treatment can cause significant short- and long-term side effects.

The Research: Andras Heczey, MD, and his team work with immune cells in the blood called natural killer T-lymphocytes (NKTs). As part of the immune system, NKTs can attack noncancerous cells that allow a neuroblastoma tumor to grow. In previous studies, Heczey’s team showed that they can engineer an NKT so that it also kill cancer cells. This cancer-targeting molecule, called CAR-NKT, kills both cancer cells and the cells that help them grow.

Now Heczey and his team are testing these engineered NKTs in children with neuroblastoma for the first time in a phase 1 clinical trial. Heczey's research is being funded by TODAY show viewers through the “Shine a Light” campaign and subsidized by the American Cancer Society.

The Goal and Long-Term Possibilities: If this treatment proves to be safe and effective, it could help to change the lives of kids with neuroblastoma, and ultimately has the potential to help kids and adults with other types of cancer.

To learn more, read: Adapting CAR T-Cell Therapy for Neuroblastoma and listen to our podcast with Andras Heczey, MD

Evidence that Cancer Screenings Are Valuable to Adult Childhood Cancer Survivors

Grantee: Jennifer M. Yeh, PhD
Institution: Boston Children’s Hospital
Areas of Research: Cancer Control and Prevention, Health Policy And Health Service
Grant Term: 7/1/2016 to 6/30/2020

The Challenge: Adult survivors of childhood cancer who were treated with radiation have a higher risk of developing a second cancer compared with adults who didn’t have cancer as a child. The Children’s Oncology Group (COG) has guidelines for cancer screening based on the type of treatment children received and other issues. But research shows that very few adult childhood cancer survivors are following through on the screening recommendations.  

The Research: Jennifer M. Yeh, PhD, thinks the lack of research about possible harms and benefits of screening childhood cancer survivors could partly be why screening rates are low. She and her team assess the value and costs of screening recommendations by using data from large national studies in mathematical and digital models.

Yeh recently evaluated the COG breast screening recommendation for women who received chest radiation as a child. They’re advised to start having yearly screening with a mammogram and breast MRI at age 25. Her team’s results suggest that compared to no screening, following the COG guideline has the potential to avoid more than 50% of deaths from breast cancer in female childhood cancer survivors, while being cost effective.

Yeh is also assessing COG recommendations for colorectal cancer screening.

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: Yeh's findings may lead to improvements in screening guidelines for childhood cancer survivors, which could help to further reduce their risk of dying from cancer as adults. Her work may also provide evidence that could help persuade survivors and health care professionals to make cancer screening a higher priority.

New Combination Targeted Therapies for Neuroblastoma and Ewing Sarcoma in Children

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

The Challenge: Targeted therapies have revolutionized how cancer is treated. Technically these are often considered chemotherapy drugs but work differently than standard chemotherapy and can have less toxic effects. This is because targeted therapies precisely identify and attack cancer cells, while leaving most healthy cells alone. Some new drugs are being tested, but so far, there are no proven targeted drugs to treat 2 childhood cancers: neuroblastoma and Ewing sarcoma.

The Research: Anthony Faber, PhD, is looking for targeted therapy options to treat neuroblastoma, which starts in certain nerve cells before a baby is born. In earlier lab studies, Faber’s team combined 2 drugs for a targeted therapy that killed certain types of neuroblastoma cells that grow quickly and are harder to treat. In mice, the drug combo shrank some tumors, and did not cause obvious toxic side effects.  

Using a similar strategy, Faber’s team developed a combination targeted therapy for Ewing sarcoma, a rare childhood cancer that starts in the bones or surrounding tissues.

The Goal and Long-Term Possibilities: With this grant, Faber’s team is continuing to test the targeted therapy for neuroblastoma in several types of mice. The team expects the findings to lead to studies in humans and eventually offer hope for children with neuroblastoma. 

Early Studies for New Treatments for Brain Tumors that Can't Be Removed by Surgery

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

The Challenge: A rare type of childhood brain cancer called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) affects the part of the brain needed to control blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. Most children with DIPG are diagnosed between the ages of 5 and 10, and many live less than a year after this aggressive cancer is found. Surgeons can’t remove the tumor because of where it’s located, and no medicines have proved to be effective. Until recently, even biopsies were not commonly done, so scientists have been challenged because of limited amounts of DIPG tissue and cells to study in research labs.  

The Research: Oren Becher, MD, is taking on the problem of limited cancer tissue by working with mice to find out more about how DIPG forms. His team has genetically changed the mice in the lab so they have the same kind of abnormal histone, or protein, found in DIPG. A normal histone works by switching genes on and off at the right time in the right cells.

Working with these mice, his team found that an abnormal histone works with an abnormal enzyme to trigger the development of DIPG. His team also found a drug that helps to limit the abnormal enzyme’s effect, slowing growth of the tumor in mice and increasing how long they live. They still have more testing to do with mice.

The Goal and Long-Term Possibilities: Improving how much is known about how DIPG tumors form is an early step to finding a successful treatment for this type of brain tumor in children.  

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
Term: 7/1/2016 to 6/30/2020

The Challenge: Medulloblastoma is the most common type of cancerous brain tumor in children. Treatment has improved and is often effective, yet a significant number of children die. Children who survive can have severe, sometimes long-lasting side effects from aggressive treatments, which may include a combination of surgery, radiation to the spine and brain, and chemotherapy. Children treated for medulloblastoma may also have side effects that start months or years after treatment. Late effects can occur almost anywhere in the body.

The Research: In earlier studies, Zen-jie Yang, MD, PhD, learned that some medulloblastoma tumors develop from problems along the hedgehog pathway, which carries signals between cells that are crucial for the development of a embryo and fetus. The hedgehog pathway is a target for some cancer drugs that treat basal cell carcinoma and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in adults and it’s being tested as a target for other types of cancer.

Yang’s team also learned that the brain tumors need cholesterol to grow.

With this grant, Yang’s research team wants to better understand more about how cholesterol affects tumor growth. His team is also testing simvastatin, a common drug (statin) used in humans to reduce high cholesterol levels, to see how it works to treat brain cancer in mice. They’ve learned that simvastatin is able to significantly reduce brain tumor growth in these mice. The research team is also testing simvastatin with certain types of targeted cancer therapy that help to block the hedgehog pathway to find out if the combination can help in prevent medulloblastoma from growing.

The Goal and Long-Term Possibilities: The researchers believe this strategy is promising since drugs to reduce cholesterol are safe, low cost, and readily available. Positive results in mouse studies can help provide a reason rationales to start testing statins in children with medulloblastoma tumors and possible other types of cancer in adults and children.

Using Mice to Test Potential New Targets for Treating Osteosarcoma

Grantee: Claudia Benavente, PhD
Institution: The Regents of the University of California, Irvine
Area of Focus: DNA Mechanisms in Cancer 
Grant Term: 7/1/2019 to 6/30/2023

The Challenge: Osteosarcoma is the most common type of bone cancer and most often occurs in children and young adults. People with osteosarcoma that has not spread to other areas of the body (known as metastasis) have a better chance of living for at least 5 years after the diagnosis compared to someone whose cancer has metastasized. To develop new treatments, researchers need to better understand what causes the cancer to metastasize.

The Research: In previous studies, Claudia Benavente, PhD, and her research team found a protein called UHRF1 that builds up in osteosarcoma tumors to help them grow, and can possibly help researchers learn how these tumors spread. She and her team focused on how the UHRF1 protein in mice with osteosarcoma interacts with the RB1 gene, which helps stop tumors from growing. Their results suggest that blocking the buildup of UHRF1 in the tumor may help dramatically reduce the spread of osteosarcoma in mice, and increase their survival.

With this grant, Benavente is working to better define the role of UHRF1 and hopes the research her team is doing can lead to the development of a new type of osteosarcoma drug to target the UHRF1 protein.

The Goal and Long-Term Possibilities: UHRF1 builds up in other cancers, including certain types of breast, prostate, and lung cancer. If Benavente’s work proves to be helpful, it has the potential to help not only children with osteosarcoma but also adults with other types of cancer.

Evaluating Outpatient Chemotherapy for Children with HR ALL to Improve Quality of Care

Grantee: Lori Ranney, MSN
Institution: Winona State University in Minnesota
Graduate Scholarships in Cancer Nursing Practice
Term: 07/01/2017 to 6/30/2019

The Challenge: Research shows that receiving chemotherapy in a clinic as an outpatient, rather than as an inpatient in a hospital, improves quality of life for both patients and their families. Currently, though, children who have high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia (HR ALL) receive high-dose methotrexate as inpatients. In general, these patients and their families stay in the hospital for 4 straight days and for 4 different times over a 2-month period to get their treatment.

The Research: As part of her graduate study for a Doctorate in Nursing Practice, Lori Ranney, MSN, transitioned some patients in one treatment center from inpatient visits for methotrexate to at-home methotrexate infusions.  She created education plans for staff and families and allowed time for feedback so sessions could be changed as needed. Of the patients that chose the methotrexate at home option, all families stayed safe and were satisfied with their care. For the patients that chose at home, supported care, each quality-of-life aspect she evaluated showed improvement: well-being, activity level, appetite, sleep, family time, and stress level.

The Goal and Long-Term Possibilities: Ranney’s findings could help improve the delivery method of chemotherapy by helping to make care more individual to each patient’s needs, and may help decrease hospital stays for children with HR ALL. The result could lead to lowered health care costs, less stress, and overall improvement in the quality of life for these children and their families.

Identifying Children with AML Most Likely to Benefit from a New Targeted Therapy

Grantee: Douglas Graham, MD, PhD
Institution: Emory University School of Medicine
Area of Research: Mission Boost Grant
Term: 3/1/2018 to 2/28/2020

The Challenge: About 65% to 70% of children with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) survive for at least 5 years after their diagnosis. In previous ACS-sponsored research, the lab headed by Douglas Graham, MD, PhD, found that targeting the MerTK enzyme may be a way to treat certain types of acute leukemias. Graham and his team identified a potential drug that works to block MerTK. However, early research suggests that the drug only works for some people with AML.

The Research: Graham and his team are searching for a way to identify patients who are most likely to benefit from the treatment that targets MerTK. In the lab, they’re using AML cells found in blood samples from children to see which cells respond to the drug. Then, they examine the genes of those AML cells that respond for a specific biomarker — a distinct molecule that could be a target for drugs. The team is also transplanting the cancer cells into mice to see if the drug works as they would expect it to in a living organism.

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: If Graham and the treatment his team is testing is successful, he believes doctors would have a better idea of when to recommend treatment with the new drug, and which patients it will likely be more effective in treating. This may help children with AML start getting successfully treated more quickly. The biomarker may also be useful in other cancers as it may predict when the drug will work for people with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and certain solid tumors.

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.

Learning About Medical Financial Hardships of Adult Survivors of Childhood Cancer

Researcher: Zhiyuan “Jason” Zheng, PhD
Institution: American Cancer Society, Intramural Research Department
ACS Research Program: Surveillance and Health Services Research

The Challenge: Research has shown that adult cancer survivors can have negative health and financial hardships for many years after their diagnosis. But there’s less research about the ongoing effect of medical financial hardships for adult survivors of childhood cancer.

The Research: A recent study about adult survivors of childhood cancer who were treated at St. Jude Children’s Research hospital found a large portion had financial hardships, an increased risk of symptoms, and lower health-related quality of life. The study’s senior researcher, Leslie L. Robinson, is a former ACS grantee.

Zhiyuan “Jason” Zheng, PhD, responded to the study in an editorial in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. He and co-author Robin Yabroff, PhD, highlighted these points:

  • Access to health insurance and care may be at risk. Some effects of newer policy changes may harm benefits from the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Benefits at risk involve mostly short-term health coverable plans what aren’t required to cover pre-existing conditions, and may limit financial protections of coverage and out-of-pocket costs for adult survivors, and others. “It will be critical to monitor the effect of these policy changes on the physical and financial health of childhood cancer survivors,” ACS authors said.
  • Cancer care costs continue to rise. In the past decades, the cost of cancer care has increased dramatically. The cost of new cancer drugs is routinely $10,000 a month and sometimes more. But as many people in the St. Jude’s study were diagnosed decades ago, their findings may actually “understate the lasting financial consequences of most childhood cancers diagnosed” today, Zheng and Yabroff said.  

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: “Better understanding of the relationship between childhood cancer diagnosis and development of human capital and health outcomes will inform efforts to improve long-term financial security and health outcomes,” the ACS authors said. 

Childhood Cancer Statistics Update in 2020 Facts & Figures

Researcher: Rebecca Siegel, MPH
Institution: American Cancer Society, Intramural Research Department
ACS Research Program: Surveillance and Health Services Research

The Challenge: To understand how well cancer control is working in the United States, we need up-to-date information about the number of people affected by cancer and where they live.

The Research: Each year, the American Cancer Society’s Surveillance and Health Services Research program analyzes data on cancer in the United States, including childhood cancers, as part of its Cancer Facts & Figures report. The process is led by Rebecca Siegel, MPH. This year's special section is on Cancer in Adolescents and Young Adults.

Here are some key findings from the 2020 report for American children (ages 1 to 14) and adolescents (ages 15 to 19). Researchers reported:

  • Cancer is the second most common cause of death among children in the US. The first cause is accidents.
  • 11,050 new cases* of cancer in children and 5,800 in adolescents are expected to be diagnosed in 2020. The rate of diagnosis in children and adolescents has been increasing slightly (0.7% a year) since 1975 for reasons that remain unclear.
  • 1,190 deaths from cancer in children and 540 deaths from cancer in adolescents are expected to occur in 2020. Death rates for cancer in children have decreased continuously for decades. Between 1970 and 2017, the cancer death rate for children declined by 68% and 63% for adolescents.
  • Leukemia is the most common childhood cancer, accounting for 28% of all cases, followed by 26% of cases from brain and other nervous system tumors.
  • In adolescents, brain and nervous system tumors are most common, accounting for 21% of all cases, followed by 20% of cases from lymphoma. 
  • Between 1970 and 2017, remission rates of childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) have achieved 90% to 100%. This seems to be mostly because of improvements in established chemotherapy drugs, rather than the development of new drugs. The death rate of leukemia dramatically declined over that same period, decreasing 83% in children and 68% in adolescents.
  • The 5-year survival rate for all types of childhood cancer combined is 84%. 

To learn more, see:  Cancer Statistics Center website.

* These numbers do not include benign and borderline malignant brain tumors because they were not required to be reported to cancer registries until 2004. To make statistical estimates like these requires 15 years of historical data.

Studying Childhood Cancer Causes and Prevention

We produced a special report on childhood cancer in 2014. This report summarizes the progress made and challenges ahead in treating and curing cancer in children and teens. Here are some of its key facts:

  • Advances in the treatment of childhood cancer have saved many lives over recent decades. Yet, there’s been less progress in understanding the causes and prevention of childhood and adolescent cancers.
  • Many cancers that occur in children have had substantial improvements in survival. Other types of cancer have seen little progress.
  • Improvements in surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy have helped children survive many types of cancers. However, some of those same survivors have a high chance of on-going health problems caused from those treatments. These side effects can significantly lower the quality of life for these children and their families.

Other Ways We Support Those Facing Childhood Cancer

In addition to leading and funding childhood cancer research, the American Cancer Society supports the families of children who have cancer with education, support services, and advocacy.

Our nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action NetworkSM (ACS CAN), advocates for childhood cancer through public policy. For instance, ACS CAN:

  • Lobbies for increased federal funding for research and new legislation to promote palliative care
  • Supports patient protection provisions in the Affordable Care Act, as these are vital to childhood cancer and survivorship 

ACS Childhood Cancer News