This fall, Memorial Sloan Kettering pediatric oncologist Aisha Hasan was awarded a Hyundai Hope Grant of $250,000. The grant is part of Hyundai’s Hope on Wheels program, which makes donations to hospitals across the country to support the training and innovative research of childhood cancer specialists.
After the grant presentation, a handprint ceremony outside the hospital gave pediatric patients in attendance the opportunity to leave their mark on the Hyundai Hope on Wheels car, which travels across the country to build awareness of the program and childhood cancers.
Dr. Hasan, a specialist in stem cell transplantation in children and young adults, will use the grant to develop novel immune therapies for pediatric cancers. She will focus on metastatic rhabdomyosarcoma and desmoplastic small round blue cell tumor, neither of which responds to traditional treatment strategies such as chemotherapy or radiation. New treatment options for children with these cancers are desperately needed.
Changing the Landscape of Available Treatments
In the clinic, Dr. Hasan treats pediatric patients with cancers originating in the bone marrow, such as leukemia; related precancerous conditions, such as myelodysplastic syndromes; and diseases arising due to deficient or defective immune cells, such as inherited immune deficiencies.
“Immune therapies have the potential to cause a complete change in the landscape of available treatments for children with these diseases, who are offered very little by currently available treatment regimens,” she says.
A Focus on T Cells
Dr. Hasan’s research aims to develop novel approaches for delivering immune T cell therapies, which can help kill residual cancer cells in patients who have a recurrence and also make blood stem cell transplantation – a potentially curative therapy for many patients with blood disorders – safer and more effective.
A major focus of her research is investigating techniques to make T cells in the laboratory; an infusion of lab-grown T cells could potentially help treat lethal infections or recurrent cancers in patients who have received a stem cell transplant. These T cells could also be used as treatment for certain cancers because they can be targeted to proteins expressed on cancer cells.
Many patients are unable to receive stem cell transplants because they lack a donor with a matched human leukocyte antigen (HLA) type. HLAs are proteins that vary between people and function as the “fingerprint” of an individual’s immune system. When a patient receives a stem cell transplant from an HLA-mismatched donor, the patient’s production of immune T cells after the transplant is delayed, increasing the risk for serious viral infections.
Dr. Hasan and her team are exploring ways to use T cells from an HLA-mismatched donor to fight these infections. One way may be to engineer the donor’s T cells to target specific proteins expressed by potentially dangerous viruses, and then infuse those T cells into the patient after the transplant is completed.
There would be many benefits to this technique. It could help decrease the threat of infection in the patient after stem cell transplant and make transplantation of HLA-mismatched stem cells a safer treatment option. It also could potentially allow a patient’s family member to be a donor, therefore saving time in searching for a matched, unrelated donor. These advances could make this lifesaving treatment available to more patients in need.