MU researcher gets Hyundai grant for child cancer relapse risk study

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 | 8:17 p.m. CDT
Rylan Newman, 5, places his hand on a canvas at a Handprint Ceremony awarding a $250,000 grant to the MU School of Medicine on Wednesday at Acuff Auditorium. The grant was awarded by Hyundai Hope On Wheels to focus research on children with cancer, such as Newman.

COLUMBIA — In January of 2010, Sarah Talbert took her 6-year-old son Shayden to the hospital for a seemingly innocuous condition: a nosebleed. What doctors discovered changed her life.

"He was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and as a parent, I cannot tell you how awful it is," Sarah Talbert said, through tears.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is the most common children's cancer and has an 80 percent recovery rate.

It is the disease researchers will focus on with the help of a funding boost announced at a ceremony at MU School of Medicine on Wednesday.

Hyundai's Hope on Wheels program awarded a $250,000 grant to the school for research that will help determine relapse risk for survivors of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, with the ultimate goal of increasing the recovery rate.

Kristen Taylor, an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences at the School of Medicine, developed a way to determine a survivor's relapse risk by looking at DNA methylation, which the body uses as a means to regulate the expression of genes. She talked about her research at Wednesday's event.

"When (DNA methylation) happens in a way it shouldn't, it can shut off genes that should normally be turned on," Taylor said. "That's a problem if we're talking about something like a gene that's supposed to be suppressing tumors."

Thomas Loew, a professor and division director of pediatric hematology and oncology at MU's Women's and Children's Hospital, said he sees about 10 new acute lymphoblastic leukemia patients per year, and with Taylor's research, these children should have a higher chance of beating cancer.

"With her work, we will know up front if a patient has changes that tell us that they are going to relapse," Loew said. "Then, you can take their treatment to the highest level and maximize your chances of curing them."

Brian O'Malley, regional general manager for Hyundai, said the Hope on Wheels program has given more than $57 million to pediatric cancer research since its inception in 1998. About0 $10 million of that was given this month in honor of National Child Cancer Awareness Month.

"The selection process for the grant is very intense," he said.  Hyundai offers all pediatric hospitals a chance to apply for the grant program, and then a board of nine physicians decide where the grant money could best be spent, O'Malley said. For this year's grant, more than 300 hospitals applied, and 41 were selected.

Mary Jo Henry, director of marketing for Joe Machens Hyundai, said the dealership has participated in fundraising for the Hope on Wheels Program on a national level for two years, so she was thrilled to see a local hospital see benefits.

"While there’s so much funding for cancer, only 3 percent is raised for children’s cancer, so it’s just amazing to be associated with an organization that has taken on this overlooked part of our society with the cancer program," Henry said.

Shayden Talbert is now in remission, but his mother said she still worries.

"(This research) would put us at ease because my biggest concern for when he’s done with treatment in May is a possible re-occurrence," she said. "So this grant is a wonderful thing to help ease a lot of families’ minds."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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