CKc AWARDS RESEARCH GRANT TO NEMOURS FOR TRIAL USING ZIKA VIRUS
On the heels of the recent news out of Nemours Children’s Health System that the Zika virus is showing promising potential to target and destroy deadly neuroblastoma cancer cells in children, Cannonball Kids’ cancer (CKc) is awarding “Nolan’s Grant” to Nemours to expand that research to other forms of childhood cancer that do not even have clinical trials to-date.
CKc, a non-profit dedicated to funding innovative pediatric cancer research, announced today the award of the $25,000 “seed” grant will enable a basic research study focused specifically on the virus’ impact on hepatoblastoma, the most common cancerous liver tumor in early childhood. The grant is given in honor of Nolan King, of Maitland, Fla., who died on April 1, 2017, at age three, from complications of the toxic treatments currently used to fight hepatoblastoma.
“When my son Cannon was in treatment, I wanted so badly to fund a research project locally” said CKc executive director Melissa Wiggins. “And, to date, nothing had synced with our mission. Today, that changed.” Wiggins continued, “After a year in development, I get to announce CKc has begun a commitment to a project with Nemours that could be a game-changer in solid tumor cancers found in children, including neuroblastoma and hepatoblastoma.” Melissa emphasized the organization’s mission, “At CKc, we believe innovative research is the key, we don’t believe in thinking inside-the-box, and that is where the missions of Nemours and CKc synced. Today is a good day for the pediatric cancer world.”
This innovative basic research study developed from a collaboration between Dr. Tamarah Westmoreland, a pediatric general and thoracic surgeon at Nemours Children’s Hospital and Assistant Professor of Surgery for University of Central Florida Medical School, Dr. Kenneth Alexander, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Nemours Children’s Hospital and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Central Florida, and Dr. Griffith Parks, Professor of Medicine and Interim Associate Dean for Research at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine. As a cancer surgeon, Dr. Westmoreland was quick to recognize that Zika viruses might not only be useful for the treatment of children with neuroblastoma, but also useful for treatment of children with other cancers.
Kelly King, mother of Nolan King, for whom the grant is named, remained close to the process of finding this hopeful, local hepatoblastoma-specific research project. “When cancer remained in Nolan’s body after three major surgeries and 12 cycles of chemotherapy intended for adults, we knew a more innovative treatment approach was needed,” said King. “Yet, there were no clinical trials for relapsed hepatoblastoma, and our family was left with no options to save our precious boy’s life.” King praised CKc for its commitment to research saying, “I’m so appreciative that we have a local foundation like CKc who is committed to changing this reality by focusing solely on research. Basic science is a crucial step toward getting new or novel therapies into children; and, Nolan’s dad Tony and I are thrilled to see this study coming to fruition. We may not have been able to save Nolan, but we believe that because of collaborative, out-of-the-box projects like this one, other families won’t have to suffer the same fate in the future,” added King.
CAN ZIKA BE USED TO BATTLE HEPATOBLASTOMA
In a meeting with Drs. Westmoreland and Alexander, Melissa Wiggins asked if Zika virus-based therapy might be effective for hepatoblastoma. Hepatoblastoma is a malignant liver tumor that usually occurs in children younger than three years of age. Hepatoblastomas are rare and difficult to treat. Currently, surgery to remove the tumor is the most effective treatment when the tumor is contained in the liver, however in cases where the tumor has spread or relapsed, there is no cure.
In response to Ms. Wiggins’ suggestion, the lab team tested hepatoblastoma cells to determine if they were susceptible to killing by Zika virus. The hepatoblastoma cells were very sensitive and were killed very quickly. Dr. Westmoreland shared these exciting results with CKc. “Zika viruses may be an effective tool to fight many childhood cancers,” stated Dr Westmoreland. “If, as our data suggest, CD24 is indeed a major determinant of what cancers would be killed by Zika viruses, then we have reasons to be very optimistic, because many pediatric cancers (and, indeed, many adult cancers) express CD24.”
With the support of CKc, the Nemours research team will confirm the role of CD24 in Zika virus-mediated killing of hepatoblastoma cells.
Then, to assess Zika viruses as a treatment for hepatoblastoma, the team will create hepatoblastoma tumors in the lab. The tumors will then be treated with different doses of Zika virus to determine if the hepatoblastoma tumors shrink (and hopefully disappear entirely) with Zika virus treatment. Such basic research studies of tumors are an essential first step toward a clinical trial in humans, as they provide information both about safety and treatment effectiveness.
All the experiments will be performed in the biosafety vivarium at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine in Lake Nona.
Dr. Parks explained, “This is an exciting partnership that brings together strengths of the Medical City research community. Collaborations across disciplines and between institutions advance science and patient care in interesting and exciting ways. We are all optimistic that Zika viruses can be developed into tools that help children (and adults) with cancer.”
FUNDING STUDIES THAT LEAD TO SOLUTIONS
Including this seed grant, CKc has funded a total of 13 research grants, since inception, for basic research studies and clinical trials totaling over $800,000. The grants are providing up to 60 children with access to “bench-to-bedside” treatments that could help give the chance to live to children who have previously been told there was nothing more to be done to save them.
“Our mission is to fund innovative and accessible research for children to provide better treatments and quality of life,” said Michael Wiggins, CKc co-founder and chairman of the board. “The ability for non-profits to focus on solutions and advocacy rather than turning profits has created opportunities for researchers to find funding for novel ideas that could be catalysts to finding cures.”