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VCU researcher awarded more than $6.3M to develop therapies for two rare pediatric cancers

Rebecca Barnabi
child at dentist office
(© Strelciuc – stock.adobe.com)

Dr. Anthony Faber, a professor in the Philips Institute of Oral Health Research at VCU School of Dentistry and Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center, has been awarded four grants totaling more than $6.3 million.

Faber will use the funds to develop new targeted therapies for two rare cancers affecting children and young adults.

“We want to offer new hope to patients suffering from these cancers,” Faber said.

Three of the grants are Research Project Grants (R01s) awarded by the National Cancer Institute, with two of the research projects focusing on neuroblastoma and the other on synovial sarcoma. The fourth grant is a smaller award from the Department of Defense that complements the NCI-funded synovial sarcoma research.

“The cancers that we’re studying in these grants are driven by transcriptional modifiers,” Faber said. “These cancers don’t have targeted therapy options because it is difficult to develop drugs that target transcriptional modifiers. However, we believe that we have uncovered biological processes that could lead to new therapies complementing current standards of care.”

Neuroblastoma is a type of cancer that develops in nerve tissue, most commonly in the glands around the kidneys. Some progress has been made in recent years, but high-risk neuroblastoma is responsible for the most cancer-related deaths in children 5 years and younger. Synovial sarcoma is another rare cancer that affects young adults, and tends to develop near major joints, such as the knee, and often spreads into other regions of the body. The 15-year survival rate for metastatic synovial sarcoma is less than 50 percent.

When cells replicate, a process of transcription takes place where a segment of DNA, which contains the information needed for cellular replication, is copied into RNA. The proteins that help monitor and control this process are known as transcriptional modifiers. In cancer, these proteins are often erroneously altered, leading to the development of cancer.

Faber and his team will focus on the activity of two transcriptional modifiers, a fusion protein known as SS18-SSX that is found exclusively in synovial sarcoma, and one found in high-risk neuroblastoma, called MYCN.

One of the NCI-funded grants focuses on MYCN-amplified neuroblastoma, a more lethal subtype in which the MYCN protein is expressed at much higher levels than typically observed. The researchers will test the effectiveness of a class of drugs known as ferroptosis inducers. Ferroptosis is a form of programmed cell death discovered fairly recently that is mis-regulated in several tumors.

The other grants are testing a new type of drug known as a SUMOylation inhibitor, with one project testing them against MYCN-amplified neuroblastoma and the others focusing on synovial sarcoma. Through a process of genetic screening, the team found these two cancers were both uniquely sensitive to this class of drug. Faber’s team will attempt to discover why.

“I’m very excited by the teams that we have assembled to take on these projects – we have a number of external collaborators from universities across the world whose expertise integrate well with the strengths we have here at VCU. Ultimately, we want to offer new hope to patients suffering from these cancers,” Faber said. “We believe these treatment approaches could complement existing therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation, and, based on our results, we are already discussing plans with Dr. Poklepovic, the associate director of clinical research at Massey, to move this drug into clinical trials.”

According to Faber, the grant funding is “really essential to be able to do any of these experiments and to push this research forward.”

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.