Patients with a rare type of leukemia called acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) have better outcomes than most leukemias because they can be treated with a very effective drug that converts their cancer cells back to normal. This success has convinced many cancer researchers that there’s a way to do the same for other leukemias. And with his recently awarded funding from the V Foundation, Ani Deshpande, Ph.D., assistant professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, can now find targets for future drugs to do just that.
“We’re aiming to rehabilitate the cancer cells, in a sense, instead of destroying them,” said Deshpande. “The advantage to this approach is that, unlike conventional chemotherapy, it doesn’t harm normal cells, so it should have far fewer toxic side effects.”
Deshpande aims to make a big impact with this work—he’s first focusing on a group of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) with very poor survival outcomes. Worse, these leukemias, characterized by fusions of chromosome 11 with another partner chromosome, are especially common among children and infants.
This subgroup of AML is trickier than APL, where the product of the gene created by the chromosomal rearrangement directly blocks the cancer cells from becoming their normal type. In contrast, in the leukemias that Deshpande’s lab studies, the change in the cells’ programming is more complex. The mutation they carry alters the regulation of other genes, but which of these prevent AML cells from becoming normal blood-forming cells is largely unknown.
Fortunately, Deshpande is an expert in studying leukemic gene regulation. His lab specializes in epigenetics—analyzing the chemical tags on genes that influence their activity. The V Foundation funds will allow Deshpande’s team to apply an advanced sequencing-based approach to identify and validate potential targets for drugs that restore cancer cells’ epigenome to normal.
“This grant not only lets me expand my lab by hiring a new postdoc, but it also means I can take risks that wouldn’t be possible if I were proposing research to the NIH,” commented Deshpande. “I’m confident that we’ll get exciting results. The tools we’re using have gotten exponentially better over the last few decades, so we’re poised for a breakthrough.”
About the V Foundation
The V Foundation for Cancer Research was founded by ESPN and legendary basketball coach Jim Valvano with one goal in mind: to achieve victory over cancer. Since its start in 1993, the V Foundation has awarded over $170 million in cancer research grants nationwide.
Watch Dr. Deshpande talk about why foundation funding is important: