ICR Discovery Club returns in-person, looks to the future of treating children with cancer

Image: Chief Executive Professor Kristian Helin opens the October Discovery Club: Accelerating Personalized Medicine for Children with Cancer.

Members of the Discovery Club gathered at the Royal Society in London for an intimate evening with some of our leading pediatric cancer scientists. Guests also came virtually from all over the UK.

This event was the first in-person Discovery Club since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The last time we were all together was in February 2020, before the first lockdown. Donor support has been critical in helping us keep our labs open so our life-saving research can continue.

On October 13, we shared the latest research findings with Discovery Club members and introduced them to our new senior leadership – Chief Executive, Professor Kristian Helin, and Chair, Professor Julia Buckingham CBE.

Throughout the evening, Discovery Club members heard from Professor Louis Chesler and Dr Alejandra Bruna about their research into understanding the biology of childhood tumors, and how they are using this information to discover and develop smarter and kinder treatments for children with cancer.

Unlocking the biology of childhood cancer

Image: Professor Louis Chesler

Professor Chesler leads the ICR’s Pediatric Solid Tumor Biology and Therapeutics Team. His research focuses on the three most common solid tumors in children: neuroblastoma, a nerve tumor, rhabdomyosarcoma, a muscle tumor and medulloblastoma, a brain tumor.

He also leads the new Center for Pediatric Oncology Experimental Medicine (POEM), which is identifying and studying the molecular changes underlying the development of childhood cancer and addressing them with innovative new treatments.

Cancer in children is fundamentally different from cancer in adults, he explained. Drugs act as ‘keys’ to unlock the mechanisms that cause cancer, but there are more and more complex ‘locks’ in adult cancer that can build up over time. While these “locks” may be easier to decipher in childhood cancers.

He said, “Our hypothesis about childhood cancer is that these locks are much more important because there are fewer of them.”

For example, MYCN is a gene that leads to cancer when it develops abnormally in children. MYCN can hijack regular cells at any level and has a very complex structure that makes it an important but difficult target for drugs.

Professor Chesler’s team focuses on understanding MYCN through its protein network. By interfering with related complexes that either synthesize RNA for protein or are responsible for gene stability, scientists can switch MYCN on and off.

Chameleon-like cancer

Image: Dr. Alejandra Bruna

dr. Bruna is a cancer biologist and leads the Preclinical Modeling of Pediatric Cancer Evolution team. She is also one of POEM’s newest recruits and her talk focused on how childhood cancers, such as neuroblastoma, evolve and how to treat them accordingly.

One way cancer evolves is in response to its environment. dr. Bruna compared it to the way a chameleon changes color to adapt to its new environment. In cancer, cells can adapt like a chameleon or there can be different types of cells, such as different colored lizards, of which only certain species survive.

New technologies allow scientists like Dr. Bruna to take a molecular fingerprint of each cell and record the changes over time and through treatment. This helps determine whether treatments should try to eradicate ‘chameleon-like’ mutations or prevent mechanisms that lead to a particular type of trait.

The critical role of philanthropic support

Image: From left to right – Professor Louis Chesler, Dr Alejandra Bruna and Chief Executive Professor Kristian Helin during the Q&A session.

Speaking at the event, Professor Kristian Helin, our Chief Executive, said: “The research we are doing would not be possible without your support and generosity. In particular, philanthropic support from families and charities has been critical to the success of the ICR in developing those kinder and more effective treatments for children with cancer.

“The ICR is a place where you can start from the very first discoveries and take it all the way to the clinic. And it sounds very simple, but it is not, it is actually very difficult to create such a place.”

Help us continue our vital research

Our Discovery Club members are part of our generous community of donors who help us advance our science strategy. Their philanthropic investment in key organizational priorities ensures that new discoveries are quickly brought into the clinic to benefit patients. This event is part of an annual series to keep members informed about our science and show them how their support is making an impact.

This year our main priorities are:

To learn more about how you can make a difference in our work and in the lives of patients, contact Hannah Joyce, Deputy Director of Philanthropy.

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