Grant Finder

LLS investigators are outstanding scientists at the forefront of leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma research at centers throughout the world. Search to see the many research projects that LLS is currently funding.

Grant: 5467-18 | Career Development Program (CDP):

Location:Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Parkville 3050, Victoria

Year: 2017

Project Title: The Key To Cancer Cell Death; Regulation Of The Pro-apoptotic Protein BIM

Project Summary:

Treating blood cancer patients with conventional approaches remains unsatisfactory because the cancer often recurs and because of the undesirable side effects caused by many of the treatments currently offered. By improving our understanding of the genetic basis of hematopoietic malignancies, we can develop targeted agents that are more selective in their action against tumor cells.

In healthy organisms, many cells have a finite lifespan. These cells undergo a normal, programmed cell death process called “apoptosis” and are then replaced with new cells. Apoptosis is regulated by a number of proteins, including pro-apoptotic proteins, such as BIM and anti-apoptotic proteins, such as BCL2. A prominent hallmark of many leukemias and lymphomas is their inability to undergo apoptosis, allowing them to survive indefinitely. Research at my host institution contributed to the development of venetoclax, an inhibitor of the pro-survival protein BCL2, which treats cancers by restoring their ability to undergo cell death. In chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a leukemia where BCL2 is overactive, remarkable results have been achieved in clinical trials, recently leading to FDA approval of the drug  for treatment of patients with high-risk CLL. Since different tumor types may express different apoptotic regulators, the results with venetoclax suggest that targeting apoptotic regulators specific to a tumor type may lead to better patient outcomes in a number of different cancers.

In mantle cell lymphoma (MCL), a disease related to CLL, expression of the pro-death molecule BIM is suppressed in 20% of patients. Thus, restoring BIM expression should sensitize these cells to undergo cell death, which may be particularly beneficial in combination with standard-of-care chemotherapeutic agents or the BCL2 inhibitor. This combination therapy may result in greater cell death and thus an enhanced therapeutic benefit. Though the role of BIM in regulating cell death is well-described, it is less clear how levels of BIM are regulated in normal cells or how BIM is suppressed in MCL. The focus of my research is to unravel the molecular mechanisms by which the expression of pro-death molecules, such as BIM, is controlled. I anticipate that the results I obtain could help explain how hematopoietic cancer cells can evade cell death and potentially lead to the development of novel approaches to treat these malignancies more effectively.

Grant: 3373-18 | Career Development Program (CDP):

Location:Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia 30322-4250

Year: 2017

Project Title: Tetrameric Acetyltransferase ACAT1 Is A Novel Therapeutic Target In Treatment Of Human Leukemia

Project Summary:

Tyrosine kinases (TKs) are a group of proteins that serve as "on/off" switches to control various cellular functions. When TKs are continuously turned on (“activated”) in blood cells leukemia may result. Anti-leukemia drugs that are designed to target TKs in leukemia cells are widely used in clinics. However, many patients develop resistance to these drugs over time, making them less effective or not effective at all. Thus, it is critical to find alternative therapies to battle drug resistance and improve clinical outcome. Cancer cells, including leukemia cells, consume more sugar compared to normal cells. However, unlike normal cells that use glucose primarily for energy, cancer cells use glucose primarily to generate the “building blocks” of proteins and lipids, enabling the cancer cells’ rapid division rate. A protein complex called pyruvate dehydrogenase complex (PDC) functions as a “gatekeeper” to control the flow of sugar toward either energy generation or building block production. When the PDC is “closed,” such as in leukemia cells, most glucose will go towards the production of building blocks. Thus, finding out how PDC activity is inhibited in leukemia cells may uncover a new vulnerability of human leukemias. 

Our previous research showed that a protein called acetyl-CoA acetyltransferase 1 (ACAT1) can significantly inhibit PDC activity. Our current studies show that ACAT1 can be highly activated in leukemia cells by TKs through a chemical modification called tyrosine phosphorylation, resulting in a more stabilized and activated form of ACAT1. Most importantly, we found that ACAT1 is more activated in leukemia patients than in healthy people, resulting in further PDC inhibition. Thus, we think ACAT1 is a promising anti-leukemia drug target. By screening FDA-approved compounds, we successfully identified a novel ACAT1 inhibitor called Arecoline Hydrobromide (AH). Our results showed that AH can effectively inhibit leukemia cell growth. We will perform further studies to gain a detailed understanding of how AH inhibits PDC, and we will test AH potency in various leukemia cell lines, animal models, and leukemia patient samples. We will also work with expert chemists to develop new ACAT1 inhibitors, related to AH, but with improved potency. Altogether, this research will provide new insight into anti-leukemia drug design, help identify new novel drug targets, and ultimately uncover novel therapeutic approaches in blood cancers.

Grant: 8011-18 | Screen to Lead Program (SLP):

Location:The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, New York 10027

Year: 2017

Project Title: Development Of NT5C2 Inhibitors For Treatment Of Relapsed Refractory ALL

Project Summary:

Despite intensive chemotherapy, 20% of pediatric and over 50% of adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) patients fail to achieve a complete remission or relapse after intensified chemotherapy, making relapse and resistance to therapy the most significant challenge in the treatment of this disease. This project seeks to develop highly active and specific inhibitors of NT5C2, a protein activated by mutations in relapsed leukemia cases. NT5C2 is directly responsible for chemotherapy resistance, making NT5C2 inhibitor an attractive strategy for the treatment of relapsed and refractory ALL patients.

Grant: 5470-18 | Career Development Program (CDP):

Location:Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University, San Francisco, California 94144-4253

Year: 2017

Project Title: Dissecting The Topological Consequences Of Mutations In The Cohesin Complex And Their Contribution To Human Leukemia Initiation And Progression.

Project Summary:

The human genome is exquisitely organized, packing five feet of DNA into a microscopic nucleus. This level of compaction requires an equally impressive level of organization. Not only does the DNA have to fit into such a tiny space; the genes required for the cell’s function must be properly expressed with high fidelity. To accomplish this seemingly insurmountable task, the genome is organized into a cascading series of loops whose formation is mediated by a multi-protein complex called the cohesin complex. This complex forms a ring-like structure that holds the ends of each loop together much like the clasp of a necklace. Recently, mutations in the cohesin complex have been identified as major drivers of acute myeloid leukemia initiation and progression. With such an important basic cellular function as the organization of DNA, it remains of vital importance to understand how mutations in the cohesin complex mechanistically cause leukemia and to identify avenues for therapeutic intervention. 

Of the core components of the cohesin complex, the STAG2 gene is the most frequently mutated and is often lost altogether. Using state-of-the-art technologies, we will study how the composition and function of the cohesin complex changes in the context of a loss of the STAG2 protein. These technologies include the ability to map the three-dimensional organization of the genome, enabling us to study how the DNA loops that are orchestrated by the cohesin complex are disrupted in AML. These molecular and mechanistic studies will be accompanied by genetic and pharmacologic screening to identify putative therapeutic targets. Ultimately, this research will bring us closer to understanding how acute myeloid leukemia develops and how dysregulation of genome organization contributes to this process. We hope that our work will identify promising drug targets and facilitate the treatment of this otherwise deadly disease.

Grant: R6509-18 | Translational Research Program (TRP):

Location:University Health Network, Toronto, Ontario M5G 1Z5

Year: 2017

Project Title: Phase I Study Of Allogeneic Double Negative T Cells In Patients With High Risk AML

Project Summary:

Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) is a cancer affecting the bone marrow that requires intensive chemotherapy for disease control. This may be associated with significant toxicity. Treatment for AML aims to destroy the leukemia cells and allow the bone marrow to work normally again. Chemotherapies help most AML patients to achieve a state of remission in which the leukemic cells have fallen to a very low level and normal blood cell production has returned. However, despite decades of using chemotherapy to treat AML patients, there continues to be a very high chance of the disease coming back as the cancer cells develop resistance to chemotherapies. Once the disease comes back, few treatment options are available to patients. Consequently, overall survival is about 40% for those <50 years of age and is significantly worse for older patients.  Thus, new treatments that are effective at targeting chemotherapy-resistant AML with low toxicity are needed for this unmet challenge. 

Double negative T cells (DNTs) are a type of white blood cell in the blood that has the ability to selectively kill cancer cells while sparing normal cells and tissues. In peripheral blood, DNTs are quite rare. To be of value in the treatment of cancer it is necessary to have large numbers of these cells. We have developed methods in the laboratory to grow DNTs from healthy volunteers to large numbers and have shown that these DNTs have potent anti-leukemia effect without detectable toxicity on normal cells and tissues in animal models. In this first-in-man clinical trial, DNTs will be obtained from healthy donors and expanded (increased in numbers) in the laboratory, in order to enhance their tumor destroying potential. In addition, the most potent DNT donor will be selected for each patient by screening before his/her DNT treatment. DNTs will be administered at 3 different dose levels (different numbers of DNT cells) into 3 different groups of patients. After infusion of the first (lowest cell number) dose level, patients will be monitored to make sure they do not experience any severe adverse side effects. Only after the confirmation of the safety of the previous dose, the next group of patients will be given the next dose (higher cell number). In addition to determining the safety of DNT treatment, we will take blood samples from the treated patients at several time points after infusion to assess how long the DNT cells are detectable in the patients, which will provide guidance on the optimal number of injections and the time between each injection required to achieve the best results. In addition, we will determine if infusion of DNT cells changed the amount of time for the patients’ immune cells to recover from chemotherapy. Furthermore, whether DNT treatment will decrease AML cells and reduce the rate of the disease returning will be monitored. The results from this study will indicate whether DNTs can be safely used as a new treatment for AML to save patient lives.  

Grant: 6555-18 | Translational Research Program (TRP):

Location:The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas 77210-4266

Year: 2017

Project Title: Immunotherapy For Multiple Myeloma Using Off-the-Shelf Cord Blood Derived Natural Killer Cells

Project Summary:

Multiple myeloma (MM) is caused by the malignant transformation of plasma cells. High dose chemotherapy followed by stem cell transplantation from a matched healthy donor (allogeneic stem cell transplantation) offers a potentially curative treatment for advanced cases of this disease. Unfortunately, only about 25% of MM patients can expect to benefit from this approach, mainly because of the high risk of infection and other toxicities associated with allogeneic stem cell transplantation, as well as the high relapse hazard that defines resistant MM. We propose to take advantage of an exciting new weapon, cancer immunotherapy, to combat high-risk MM without the risks associated with allogeneic stem cell transplantation. Natural killer (NK) cells, isolated either from the patients themselves or from normal adult donors, are being used increasingly because of their potent anti-cancer effects. We have identified umbilical cord blood as an ideal source of NK cells, as the cells are already frozen and ready for use, without the need for collection from an adult donor. The aim of this research is to harness NK cells to destroy MM cells. Recent progress in our laboratories has shown that NK cells can be isolated from cord blood and expanded outside the body to large enough numbers to be used in adult patients, where they are expected to kill MM cells efficiently without introducing major toxic effects. This NK cell activity, when combined with high dose chemotherapy, a novel drug called lenalidomide (which promotes the anti-myeloma effects of NK cells), and elotuzumab (an antibody that targets a protein on the surface of myeloma cells) could establish an entirely new strategy of effective immunotherapy for MM that may eliminate the need for allogeneic stem cell transplantation in this disease. Finally, we propose to boost the anti-myeloma potential of NK cells by engineering them to increase their ability to recognize and kill MM cells using a mouse model of the disease. If our attempt at specific targeting is successful in the laboratory, we will move this strategy into clinical testing as rapidly as possible. 

Grant: 6544-18 | Translational Research Program (TRP):

Location:Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55486-0334

Year: 2017

Project Title: Modulating Immune Function In Peripheral T-cell Lymphoma (PTCL)

Project Summary:

Patients with peripheral T- cell lymphoma (PTCL) constitute approximately 12-15% of all lymphoma cases and PTCL patients typically have a poor outcome. Patients with PTCL typically respond to initial combination chemotherapy, but most patients subsequently progress and require additional therapy. Treatments such as romidepsin and belinostat have been approved for patients with PTCL, but their efficacy has been limited. There is therefore clearly a need for additional new therapies to treat patients with PTCL.

Multiple mechanisms account for the lack of durable benefit with current treatment, but the inability of tumor-specific immune cells to eradicate the lymphoma is a central issue. A novel mechanism used by cancer cells to inhibit the immune response, however, is overexpression of programmed death ligand 1 or 2 (PD-L1 or PD-L2). These proteins interact with the programmed death-1 (PD-1) receptor expressed on intratumoral T-cells and provide an inhibitory signal thereby suppressing anti-tumor immunity. In previous work, we have shown that PD-1/PD-1 ligand interactions are critically important in PTCL and have found that PD-1 is expressed both on malignant cells and in the tumor microenvironment.  Similarly, we have found that PD-L1 is highly expressed by malignant T-cells and intratumoral monocytes, and have shown that tumor-associated PD-L1 suppresses T-cell immunity. 

Monoclonal antibodies that block PD-1 signaling can prevent T-cell suppression and promote an anti-lymphoma immune response. Antibodies, directed against PD-1 or PD-L1, are currently being tested in clinical trials and have shown remarkable efficacy in some hematologic malignancies. Despite broad clinical use of PD-1 directed therapy, very little is known about the immunology of PD-1 signaling in hematological malignancies. In PTCL in particular, PD-1/PD-L1/2 signaling is complicated by the fact that the receptor and ligands can both be expressed on the cancer cell. Furthermore, initial clinical trials have included very few patients with PTCL; however, in 5 patients receiving nivolumab, an antibody that blocks PD-1 signaling, 2 patients had an objective response, suggesting possible efficacy of PD-1 blockade in PTCL. 

In this application, therefore, we propose to 1) measure the immune consequences of inhibiting PD-1/PD-1 ligand signaling, 2) determine the clinical efficacy of PD-1 blockade alone, and in combination with romidepsin, in patients with relapsed and refractory PTCL, and 3) determine the immunological predictors of clinical response to PD-1 therapy in patients with PTCL. In the proposed aims, we will determine how well PD-1 blockade works in PTCL, the specific mechanism of action of PD-1 blockade in PTCL, and in which subgroup of PTCL patients PD-1 blockade is predicted to have clinical benefit. Successful completion of this project is likely to have a major impact on clinical practice by potentially leading to an effective new therapy for patients with PTCL.

Grant: 6538-18 | Translational Research Program (TRP):

Location:The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio 43210

Year: 2017

Project Title: Novel Strategies For The Therapy Of Genomic High Risk CLL

Project Summary:

Cancers such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) are characterized by a slow accumulation of a specialized kind of white blood cell called a B-lymphocyte. It starts in the bone marrow and spills over to accumulate in the blood, lymph node, liver and spleen. The reason CLL is problematic is that the leukemic B-cells are non- functional and live for a long time either because they have proteins that help them survive for a long time or lose proteins that normally would cause them to die.

CLL undergoes changes in its genes.  For instance, it often loses a very important gene called p53. p53 is called the guardian of the genome and is necessary to kill the CLL cells after treatment with drugs. Every cell of the body has two copies of this gene. In CLL, one copy of p53 is lost due to deletions and the other copy sometimes gets altered by mutations. The mutated p53 supports the survival of the CLL cells and help the disease become resistant to treatment.  Both deletions and mutations of p53 have been found to decrease survival in patients whose CLL cells carry these abnormalities.

Mutated p53 depends on HSP90, a protein that binds to mutated p53 and helps it carry out its cancer supporting function. One of the key functions of mutated p53 is to block the cell death inducing action of normal p53 and in addition activate other genes that support CLL cell survival. We plan to use drugs that stop the action of HSP90 (HSP90i). Blocking HSP90 will prevent it from stabilizing mutated p53 and cause it to be destroyed, which in turn, will kill CLL cells that carry deletions or mutations of p53. Therefore, HSP90i treatment may represent a new treatment that can treat  this poor prognosis group of CLL patients (del17p/mutant p53) either alone or in combination with drugs such as ibrutinib that are currently in use used to treat the disease.

Grant: 6553-18 | Translational Research Program (TRP):

Location:IRIC - Institut de Recherche en Immunovirologie et en Cancerologie, Montreal, Quebec H3C 3J7

Year: 2017

Project Title: RUNX1 Mutations That Confer Exquisite Sensitivity To Glucocorticoids

Project Summary:

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a disease caused by several genetic alterations, including mutations in the RUNX1 gene. The presence of RUNX1 mutations in AML cells is generally associated with bad prognosis for these AML patients, and RUNX1 mutations are also the cause of Family platelet disorder, which predisposes these patients to AML development. In order to discover novel cures for patients suffering from RUNX1-mutated AML, we identified glucocorticoids as effective drugs that kill AML cells carrying RUNX1 mutations. In this proposal, we plan to perform experiments to better understand how these molecules kill these AML cells and test the ability of GCs to cure mice that we will engineer to develop AMLs harboring RUNX1 mutations, in the hope of bringing this discovery to the clinic to improve treatment of patients suffering from RUNX1- mutated AML. 

Grant: 5471-18 | Career Development Program (CDP):

Location:Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02241-5649

Year: 2017

Project Title: Studying The Function Of Co-activator MAML1 In Notch-associated T-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Project Summary:

Normal cell growth and differentiation relies on a small number of signaling pathways that direct the gene expression patterns unique to each cell type. One pathway particularly important in cell-cell communication is the Notch pathway, which normally relies on direct contact between a signal-sending cell and a signal-receiving cell. After the signal is activated, a portion of the Notch protein enters the cell nucleus and forms a complex with two other proteins, called RBPJ and MAML1, to regulate the expression of genes that control cell growth and cell fate decisions. Aberrant activation of the Notch pathway by mutations, however, leads to the development of T cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL). In fact, Notch1 mutations are found in more than half of all human T-ALL cases. The goal of my project is to understand how the MAML1 gene cooperates with Notch to induce the production of Notch-responsive genes. In one line of study, I will use a Notch inhibitor to toggle the Notch pathway between “on” and “off” states, and determine what protein partners MAML1 chooses in the “Notch active” state and how these partnerships affect its function. I will also analyze the temporal sequence of events that take place in the nucleus after Notch is switched on in leukemic cells, focusing on the role of MAML1 in the induction of target gene expression. These studies will help us understand how Notch and MAML1 cooperate to stimulate aberrant gene expression in leukemic cells and may lead to new strategies for therapeutic development in T-ALL.