Hyundai Hope On Wheels Scholar builds on past research success to pursue new treatment for pediatric kidney cancer

September 02, 2016

Four years ago, physician-scientist Dr. Kenneth Chen and his colleagues at Children’s Medical Center turned surgically removed kidney tumors – once threats to life – into new sources of information on cancer. They sequenced the genes of dozens of tumors, and now Dr. Chen will build on their discoveries with a new $150,000 Hyundai Hope On Wheels grant.

Dr. Chen, a pediatric oncologist at Children’s Medical Center Dallas and an assistant instructor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center, was named a Hyundai Young Investigator during a special handprint ceremony today. Several current and former patients were invited to dip their hands in paint and put their palms on a white 2016 Hyundai Tucson to commemorate their fight against the disease.

The Young Investigator grants fund childhood research projects designed to improve the treatment and quality of life for children with cancer. This year, Hyundai will award more than $13 million in new pediatric cancer grants. Since 1998, the program has funded $115 million in research to Children’s Oncology Groups member institutions nationwide.

Dr. Chen and his colleagues’  2012 gene sequencing project found that a stubborn subset of  Wilms tumors that are resistant to chemotherapy lack a critical switch operator that turns off cell growth at the right time. Unlike normal cells, they do not have the regulatory molecules called microRNAs that turn off the process to keep cells from growing more than they should.

“When the microRNAs are gone, the pro-growth genes just run rampant,” Dr. Chen said. “It makes the cell grow out of control.”

Dr. Chen will use the Hyundai support to pursue methods of getting these microRNAs back into the cells to slow or reverse cancer’s march toward further tumor growth.

“We didn’t know anything about microRNAs in cancer until about 10 years ago,” Dr. Chen said. “And then we discovered these mutations in Wilms tumor.”

The discovery was made by sequencing the genes of 44 Wilms tumors that had been preserved for future research by freezing them after they were surgically removed. When some extra funding was available, Dr. Chen and other researchers jumped at the chance to further scientific understanding of this disease.

They sequenced the genes by performing next-generation sequencing on DNA extracted from the tumors, and they used cutting-edge genome editing technologies to understand how these mutations work inside living cells.

Dr. Chen hopes his research will help find a way to defeat Wilms tumor, a rare kidney cancer that primarily affects children under the age of 5. Also known as nephroblastoma, Wilms tumor is the most common cancer of the kidneys in children. Studying mouse models and human cells, Dr. Chen plans to investigate whether using drugs designed for adults that put microRNAs back into cells can stop or even reverse Wilms tumor cell growth.

A special guest at today’s ceremony was speaker Jack Maurer, a 12-year-old Children’s patient who had a Wilms tumor surgically removed in 2007. The Coppell seventh grader said he was pleasantly surprised to learn that his tumor may have been one of the tumors Dr. Chen and other researchers had sequenced.

“It’s neat to think I might have been part of that,” he said. “It’s like I left a legacy at the hospital that took care of me.”

Hyundai Hope on Wheels has awarded Children’s pediatricians working in the Pauline Allen Gill Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders more than $1 million since 2011.


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