Greehey Institute Receives $3.7 Million Cancer Grant

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Dr. Shafqat Shah performs a checkup on patient Samantha Alvarez, 13. Photo courtesy of the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Dr. Shafqat Shah performs a checkup on patient Samantha Alvarez, 13. Photo courtesy of the University of Texas Health Science Center.

A cancer diagnosis is difficult news for anyone, and it can be particularly frightening and heart-wrenching for a family with a cancer-stricken child living in a lower-income area without access to adequate health care.

The National Cancer Institute has awarded a $3.7 million grant to the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute at the UT Health Science Center to address this challenge by providing support for pediatric cancer research trials to ensure patient populations throughout San Antonio receive the best health care possible.

The grant was provided through the NCI’s Community Oncology Research Program, whose overall goal is to bring cancer clinical trials and cancer care delivery research to individuals in their own communities.

NCORP scientists will design and conduct trials to improve cancer prevention, cancer control, screening, and post-treatment management, as well as multi-level studies on research effectiveness.

Gail Tomlinson, the division director for pediatric hematology oncology at the UTHSCSA, said the grant would target children from San Antonio south to the Rio Grande Valley and north to Austin.

“This grant offers children with cancer the ability to participate in numerous clinical studies aimed at improvement of care – it helps children get the care they need, but it also improves care for the next generation of cancer patients,” she said.

Tomlinson said the grant will support data management, clinical trial enrollment and the extra work that comes with managing children in clinical trials.

There are still many unknowns in diagnosing and treating childhood cancer. There aren’t many preventive strategies to combat its onset.

Assistant professor of pediatrics Greg Aune at work in his lab. Photo courtesy of the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Assistant professor of pediatrics Dr. Greg Aune at work in his lab. Photo courtesy of the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Cancer in children is thought to occur as the result of abnormalities that occur at the molecular level in growth and development that then lead to tumor formation, Tomlinson said.

Although there is disagreement among different research institutes, recent studies show that childhood leukemia is more prevalent in Hispanic populations.

Results from St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and the Children’s Oncology Group show inherited risk factors for childhood leukemia are more common in Hispanics , and that Hispanic children are more likely than children in other racial and ethnic backgrounds to be diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and to die from the disease.

A report from the Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas stated that while it’s not yet clear why children in different racial groups have significantly different survival rates for acute lymphocytic leukemia, the most common leukemia in children, one-quarter of young cancer survivors are not taking potentially lifesaving follow-up medications.

Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a higher incidence of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) among Hispanics in 2011.

Anne-Marie Langevin, clinical and interim Greehey Institute Oncology Chair at the UTHSCSA and the writer of the grant, said the NCI took into account the Center’s ability to study the delivery of health care services, health outcomes and more in awarding the grant.

“There were many factors – including our track record of being able to do clinical trials – and we recruit all ethnicities on those trials,” she said. “The large scale of the grant and the area it covers means the best care is close for a huge number of families.”

The clinical trials also include treatment trials and testing of new drugs with a focus on outcomes, quality of life, and management of side effects.

Tomlinson said some patients have to travel from Corpus Christi or the Valley to access health care in San Antonio.

The UTHSCSA area is one of 12 minority and underserved community sites in the U.S. to receive the five-year grant, and it is the only NCORP site in Texas.

The UT Health Science Center is one of 12 minority and underserved community sites to benefit from a new grant. Photo courtesy of UT Health Science Center.

The UT Health Science Center is one of 12 minority and underserved community sites to benefit from a new grant. Photo courtesy of UT Health Science Center.

The grant is one of 53, five-year grants the NCI has awarded to researchers across the country to conduct multi-site cancer clinical trials and cancer care delivery research studies in their communities.

The other grant partners include the San Antonio Military Medical Center, Methodist Children’s Hospital, Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin and Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi.

The five-year grant replaces a federal pediatric cancer grant also led by the Health Science Center for more than 23 years, Langevin said.

The Health Science Center-led grant connects the regional partners with a network of seven NCORP research bases, 34 community sites and 12 minority and underserved community sites across the country.

To read more about NCI’s work through the Office of Cancer Genomics, visit www.target.cancer.gov/data.

*Featured image: Pediatrician Shafqat Shah performs a checkup on patient Samantha Alvarez, 13. Photo courtesy of the University of Texas Health Science Center.

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