WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. [July 23, 2001] - The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society today announced it will award $22.5 million in grants to three interdisciplinary research teams for projects aimed at rapidly accelerating the discovery of breakthrough treatments for blood-related cancers through its Specialized Center of Research (SCOR) program.
SCOR is the largest research initiative ever undertaken by the Society, with funding that rivals federal support for blood-related cancer research.
The grants announced today include two U.S.-based SCOR centers, to be located at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Rockefeller University in New York City, and at the University of Pennsylvania/Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. SCOR's first international research center will be located at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia -- the country's premier medical research facility.
Initiated in 2000, SCOR is the Society's most ambitious research program ever and one of the largest coordinated efforts to combat blood-related cancers. SCOR is aimed at finding new treatments for blood-related cancers including leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma - diseases that kill an estimated 60,500 Americans each year. Research is performed by teams of scientists from different scientific disciplines, each of which focuses on improving the treatment and diagnosis of blood-related cancers using their varied and complementary approaches. Six SCOR teams have now been selected for support (three were chosen in 2000).
"SCOR is the first major privately funded program that brings together top scientists from around the world to work jointly on developing novel therapies for these deadly cancers," said Dwayne Howell, president and CEO of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. "We believe SCOR's unique, team-focused approach could lead to insights that result in treatments which improve patients' survival rates - and eventually to cures."
The SCORs will each receive $1.5 million per year for five years, totaling $7.5 million, for their projects in either fundamental or applied research, or a combination of the two approaches. The grants are renewable after five years. SCOR's teams are chosen following a highly competitive peer review process that bases its award recommendations on the likelihood that the research will lead to a significant reduction in morbidity and mortality in the diseases.
"We have chosen our specialized centers based on our anticipation that they will make a significant impact in the treatment of blood-related cancers," said Marshall Lichtman, M.D., the Society's executive vice president for research and medical programs. "Each has a track record of discoveries in leukemia, lymphoma, or myeloma."
Identifying and Targeting Leukemia Genes
This SCOR team leader is Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., who has assembled a group of accomplished laboratory and clinical investigators from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Rockefeller University with world-class expertise in structural, cellular and molecular biology. Dr. Nimer's team, which includes the 1999 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, Günter Blobel, Ph.D. of Rockefeller University, will study how genetic lesions disrupting the function of key regulatory nuclear proteins lead to the development and progression of leukemia.
The team will use structural, cellular and molecular biological approaches to determine how specific abnormalities in nuclear proteins lead to the development and progression of myeloid malignancies. They will evaluate genes that are expressed in leukemia cells but not in normal cells, so that their gene products can be explored as new targets for drug interventions. The work will enhance our understanding of genetic abnormalities that lead to the development of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), one of the most common forms of leukemia, and in myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), a group of malignancies in which the marrow loses its ability to produce normal blood cells. Both AML and MDS are cured infrequently.
Patient-Tailored Therapies Against Lymphoma, Adult and Childhood Leukemia
This SCOR recipient - Carl H. June, M.D., who will lead research teams at the Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia - will focus on a variety of patient-specific cellular therapies. These treatments generally fall outside the parameters of research in the pharmaceutical industry and frequently go unfunded, despite their promise. The teams, including investigators recently recruited to the Abramson Family Center Research Institute, will develop and test immune and biologic approaches to treat patients with lymphoma and leukemia.
The Philadelphia-based researchers will conduct two clinical trials, tailoring their approaches to patients' individual tumors and taking advantage of the close proximity between the adult and pediatric oncology units at the Philadelphia SCOR center. The teams will also study the role of the multiple lineage leukemia gene that encodes abnormal proteins which act to switch on the growth program of immature cells.
Additionally, the researchers aim to develop improved stem cell transplant protocols for lymphoma patients, and better treatments for two of the four major types of leukemia - acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) in pediatric patients. There are approximately 142,000 leukemia patients in the U.S., and an estimated 30,200 new cases are diagnosed each year.
Targeting Molecules To Kill Lymphoma Cells
The first SCOR grant outside of the United Sates was awarded to Jerry M. Adams, Ph.D., and his team at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Melbourne, Australia. The WEHI SCOR team, which includes collaborators at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, are attempting to develop new medicines for lymphoma.
Nearly a half-million Americans live with lymphoma, and incidence rates for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma have nearly doubled since the 1970s. About 64,000 Americans are diagnosed with lymphoma each year.
The Australian researchers will investigate how the body's normal process of cellular death, called apoptosis, is regulated to control blood cell count. By designing drugs that directly target the key molecules regulating apoptosis, the team hopes to stimulate lymphoma cells to undergo programmed death, either via treatment with the drug or in combination with conventional chemotherapeutic agents. The research could lead to the development of new medicines that efficiently intervene and kill blood-cancer cells.
Dr. Adams pioneered the use of transgenic models -- organisms into which DNA has been introduced - in cancer research. He is well known for his work on the genetic abnormalities of lymphoma, and he and his colleagues have made significant discoveries in Burkitt's lymphoma and other related disease areas.
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at Forefront of Research
Society-sponsored research has been a driving force behind major scientific breakthroughs in the treatment of many types of cancers. One of the most important advances in the last quarter century in the field of blood-related cancer research and treatment was recently made by Dr. Brian Druker. Dr. Druker received a $500,000 grant from the Society at a critical point in his career which helped him demonstrate that the drug Gleevec® (STI-571) is an effective treatment for chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). Dr. Druker was one of three initial SCOR grant recipients last year.
Gleevec® , developed for other disease therapies by Novartis, won recent approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other regulatory bodies. The drug is now used as a treatment for CML patients for whom interferon-alpha therapy has failed. Gleevec represents a new class of drugs referred to as molecularly-targeted cancer therapies. It holds the record for undergoing the fastest review and approval of any cancer drug reviewed by the FDA.
Last year's SCOR grants went to teams of scientists led by Selina Chen-Kiang, Ph.D., at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, in collaboration with Rockefeller University, both in New York City; James D. Griffin, M.D., at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston; and Dr. Druker at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, in collaboration with researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. In addition to the SCOR grants, the Society supports more than 400 investigators in 33 states and 10 foreign countries and has invested more than $270 million in blood-related cancer research. The Society is committed to spend $150 million between 2000 and 2003 - the largest commitment to research in its 52-year history.
Leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma are related cancers. The diseases usually result from an acquired genetic injury to the DNA of a single marrow or lymph node cell, which becomes abnormal (malignant) and multiplies continuously. Their onset interferes with the body's production of healthy blood cells and may make the body incapable of protecting itself against infections.
An estimated 106,700 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma in 2000. New cases of these diseases account for 9 percent of cancer cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Every five minutes, someone in the U.S. learns that they have leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma -- nearly 300 people each day.
The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, based in White Plains, New York, is the fastest-growing nationwide, non-profit, voluntary health organization. The Society's mission is to cure leukemia, non-Hodgkin's and Hodgkin's lymphomas, and myeloma, and to improve the quality of life of patients and their families.
NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: FOR THE LATEST NEWS ON BLOOD-RELATED CANCERS, VISIT THE LEUKEMIA & LYMPHOMA SOCIETY'S PRESS ROOM AT WWW.LEUKEMIA-LYMPHOMA.ORG.
Nancy Kriz, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, 914-821-8861