St. Jude's Golden Nugget
a discovery in Memphis, Tennessee, promises to have a similar effect on the field of cancer research. A team of researchers found new mutations that contribute to acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common type of childhood cancer. The strategy the scientists used to make that discovery has started a “gold rush” worldwide, because it shows researchers how they can identify unsuspected mutations in adult cancers, as well.
Until recently, scientists lacked the tools for such a project. Then the human genome project provided a kind of blueprint of what normal genes look like in humans. Scientists also developed new technology to aid in the search.
In 2005, the timing and conditions were right for St. Jude to conduct a study to pinpoint the lesions that lead to leukemia. The hospital had the technology and a vast store of leukemia samples from St. Jude patients. “We thought that we could apply that technology and gain insights into the lesions that were present in leukemic cells that were not present in patients’ normal cells,” Downing explains. “We would then be able to take that information and start identifying the number of lesions in existence.”
Developing therapies based on these discoveries will be a long process. “But, really, to some extent, it’s like the gold rush,” Downing says. “From a scientific point of view, what this says is that there’s gold in those hills. Now we know how to find it, and let’s go find it.”
Downing predicts that within the next few years, this kind of study will be conducted on every human tumor. “As a result, an incredible amount of information is going to come out that will be a leap in our understanding of what causes cancer,” he says. “People are racing to do this, and that’s good. The competition will accelerate research, and we will end up getting answers much more quickly, which is what we are really after, especially in a place like St. Jude. We really don’t care about getting the credit; we just want to figure out how to improve treatment for kids with cancer.”
One day the world will be cancer-free because of this study. And my nephew, Tyler, will live the rest of his now healthy life knowing that when he was just a little boy of six, his blood was part of the study that started it all.