New therapies for childhood cancer could soon be discovered right here in Charlotte. A pediatric oncology lab at Levine Children’s will become a hub of international research – giving kids with cancer more treatment options and more hope than ever.

Child Health, News | one year ago

Our New Lab Becomes a Global Hub for Pediatric Cancer Research

This lab – the only one of its kind in the region – will play a vital role in developing precision treatments for pediatric cancers.

Finding cures for childhood cancers is a collaborative effort that stretches across the globe. Atrium Health Levine Children’s brings the newest therapies and clinical trials from around the world to patients in Charlotte.

Now, some of those therapies will be discovered right here. A new pediatric oncology research laboratory opened at Levine Children’s that will develop new precision treatments for pediatric cancers.

“This is the first pediatric oncology research lab in the region, which is really exciting,” says Giselle Sholler, MD, director of the Isabella Santos Foundation Solid and Rare Tumor Program at Levine Children's. “What happens in the lab here will directly impact patients, both here and around the country.”

This lab will focus initially on neuroblastoma and four types of brain tumors, and it will expand to other cancers as well. The research will advance the discoveries of drugs that can lead to new, early-phase clinical trials that provide leading-edge treatment options to pediatric cancer patients. Typically, a drug in this lab can go from testing to clinical trial within about a year, making Levine Children’s a leader – as well as a collaborator – in cancer research.

An Acclaimed Team Leading Precision Treatment Development

Dr. Sholler, a world-renowned pediatric oncologist, arrived at Levine Children’s this past year. She has a deep commitment to research as the chair and founder of the Beat Childhood Cancer Research Consortium, which includes more than 50 hospitals and universities around the world. Not only did the Dr. Sholler’s lab move with her to Charlotte, but it will grow here as Levine Children’s undertakes new research initiatives.

The Beat Childhood Cancer Research Consortium collects samples from every tumor across all of its sites, making this lab one of the largest biobanks of pediatric cancer in the country. Researchers gain a deeper understanding of pediatric tumors by analyzing the RNA, DNA and protein of each tumor, which allows them to identify the most effective medicines to fight them.

“We take a targeted precision medicine approach for every child diagnosed at Levine Children’s and across the Consortium,” Dr. Sholler says. “We are able to identify treatments that are selectively targeted to their cancer. We study and are learning which treatments  will work better, and  hopefully minimize side effects and create better outcomes.”

The lab will have two crucial pieces of equipment – the first of their kind in the region. The first is a spectral imager that can test the efficacy of brain tumor treatments. This offers the most accurate translational research model to advance pediatric cancer therapies into clinical trials.

“To test a drug in patients, you first have to ensure the efficacy, essentially, with that drug or a drug combination,” Dr. Sholler says. “That can be especially challenging for brain tumors. This imager allows us to do this testing with brain tumor treatments, and it’s a critical step in getting these treatments to kids.”

In addition, the lab has a mass cytometer that can measure 50 cellular markers of a tumor at once – compared to the five or 10 markers typically measured simultaneously. This not only reveals more about the behavior of the tumor cells, but how they interact with the immune system also. This is a new area of research that Levine Children’s is undertaking to advance precision medicine.

This lab exists because of philanthropy and hope. In addition to the Beat Childhood Cancer Foundation and the Isabella Santos Foundation, the generosity of many donors enabled this lab to open in Charlotte with a powerful goal: to cure childhood cancers.

“While every cancer and every patient is unique, we hope and expect that the lessons that we learn from one cancer will help many other different kinds of cancers,” says Jeffrey Huo, MD, PhD, a pediatric BMT and cellular therapies physician at Levine Children’s. “Science builds on itself, one step at a time, and discoveries aren’t made in isolation, but they help build momentum towards more and more discoveries elsewhere.”

Improving Outcomes with Precision Medicine

Levine Children’s has already been at the forefront of precision medicine for pediatric cancers. Children from around the U.S. – and even from 20 countries – travel here for treatments.

“The new lab – and especially Dr. Sholler’s leadership in this lab – will allow us to bring even more early-phase clinical trials to patients, offering them the most cutting-edge therapies available,” says Javier Oesterheld, MD, the specialty medical director of pediatric hematology, oncology and bone and marrow transplant at Levine Children’s and Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation Endowed Chair for cancer and blood disorders. “This research further establishes Levine Children’s as a leader in precision medicine for childhood cancer.”

One pediatric cancer that’s shown special promise with precision medicine is neuroblastoma, which is a cancer that begins in nerve cells. At many centers, all neuroblastomas are treated the same; at Levine Children’s, our research study incorporating genomic sequencing means that each child is matched with the treatment best equipped to fight their exact tumor.

“Progress with neuroblastoma has continued to improve over the last five years,” Dr. Sholler says. “For example, one drug we’ve been studying, DFMO has changed outcomes. Before, over 35% of kids were relapsing. Now less than 15% of kids on this drug are relapsing.”

One drug can change so many lives. And now, some of those precision drugs that bring hope to pediatric patients at Levine Children’s will be discovered right here.