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Promise and Progress - Philanthropy

CSI Cancer-Solving Investigators, Building the Best GI Cancer Program - Fall 2008-Winter 2009


By: Valerie Mehl
Date: October 1, 2008

Children's Cancer Foundation Awards $1.2 Million for Building and Research Grants
Shirley Howard, president of the Children's Cancer Foundation (CCF), awarded more than $1.2 million in building and research grants to Johns Hopkins at the Foundation's 2007 gala. Ronald Peterson, president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, accepted $300,000 towards CCF's $5 million pledge being used to build the pediatric oncology inpatient unit in the new children's hospital scheduled for completion in 2010. Also receiving grants that evening were:
Drs. Benjamin Carson and Gregory Riggins: $151,887
Drs. George Jallo and Alfredo Quinones-Hinjosa: $105,000
Dr. Donald Small: $132,018
Dr. Alan Friedman: $100,000
Dr. David Loeb: $104,634
Dr. Patrick Brown: $100,000
Drs. Charles Eberhart and Peter Burger: $79,000
Drs. David Berman and Nicholas Gaiano: $45,000
Dr. Jason Yustein: $11,480

Safeway and the Prostate Cancer Foundation Fund Research Collaboration
THE JOHNS HOPKINS Kimmel Cancer Center will be at the helm of a new prostate cancer research initiative that explores the role of a targeted heat treatment as well as other potential new therapies. Safeway Inc. and the Prostate Cancer Foundation have teamed up to fund the $6 million STAR program (Special Team Amplification of Research).

The Hopkins team will coordinate a multi-institutional team of investigators, including researchers from the University of Michigan, and the University of British Columbia. “Similar to the program that Robert Goddard put in place to make space flight a reality, everyone that has input will be invited to the table to be a part of the solution,” says Jonathan Simons, CEO and David H. Koch Chair of the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

STAR also convened a think-tank of experts in different areas of oncology to figure out why current therapies cure some types of cancers but not others. What they learn will lead to new research ideas for prostate and other common cancers.

“We are honored to be associated with the pioneering work of some of the world’s top cancer researchers,” says Steve Burd, Safeway chairman, president and CEO.

“This program is evidence of what can happen when you link the fund-raising power of a major company like Safeway with the research vision of the Prostate Cancer Foundation,” adds Simons.

In earlier research, a Kimmel Cancer Center team showed that cancer cells exposed to heat are easier to kill with radiation therapy and chemotherapy. They are now working to find the best way to deliver heat directly to cancer cells, preventing damage to nearby normal tissue. Their research uses new, cutting-edge work with nanoparticles, microscopic particles just one billionth of a meter in size. The nanoparticles are engineered to be attracted to specific proteins expressed by cancer cells.

“Once the nanoparticle locates the cancer protein, it enters the cancer cell,”
explains Robert Getzenberg, director of research for the Johns Hopkins Brady Urological Institute. “Exposing the cells to a magnetic field causes the nanoparticles to heat the cancer cells up from the inside out. Because of Safeway’s leadership and their customer’s support and the Prostate Cancer Foundation, we will be able to develop this unique approach and other new concepts and take them from the laboratory to clinical trials in patients.”

Triple Winner Campaign Could Mean Big Win for Kids with Cancer
SECOND-GRADER GAVIN loves to collect and study rocks and minerals. He hopes to be a geologist one day. Six-year-old Aaliyah loves to dance and sing along to her favorite Beyonce songs. Michael is in fourth grade and enjoys playing video games but hopes to soon get back to playing his favorite sports, football and basketball. And 10-yearold Justin dreams of becoming a left-handed pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles.

It is for these children and the many others battling cancer that local Giant Food
stores kicked off their fourth year of the Triple Winner Program, pledging $1 million
to pediatric cancer research at the Kimmel Cancer Center and $500,000 to the
Children’s Cancer Foundation. The Baltimore Orioles helped launch the campaign on
March 13, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, along with Donald Small, acting director
of pediatric oncology, and Shirley Howard, president of the Children’s Cancer
Foundation. The campaign was so successful that by June 9, a month earlier than
anticipated, Giant announced that it had already reached its $1.5 million goal.

Safeway Helps Fund New Therapies
“OUR MISSION IS TO PREVENT and control breast cancer through research, clinical care and educating physicians,” says Nancy Davidson, director of the Kimmel Cancer Center Breast Cancer Program. “We get closer to accomplishing this mission through the continued support of partners like Safeway.”

Since 2003, Safeway has donated more than $833,000 for cancer research at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. The company’s most recent donation of $489,425 was recognized on Feb. 7, 2008. In total, Safeway has contributed more than $41 million since 2001 to breast cancer research at cancer centers throughout the United States.

“This has become a passion of ours,” says Steve Burd, Safeway Chairman and CEO who has taken a national and local leadership role in health care reform.

About 20 Safeway employees, including cashier Michele DeLoach from Eldersburg, Md., who raised $8,186, the most of all cashiers in Safeway’s eastern division, was on hand to hear about the exciting Kimmel Cancer Center discoveries Safeway’s fund-raising initiatives have generated. DeLoach and other Safeway cashiers raise money for cancer research by asking customers to donate during check-out.

“While we can see cancer mortality is dropping, there is still a lot that needs to be done,” says Davidson. “With the help of research funding by partners like Safeway, we are closing the gap between breast cancer incidence and mortality, but of course, our job will not be done until we bring that number to 0.”

Davidson, along with program co-director Sara Sukumar, has built a 30-member breast cancer team, including surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, radiologists, basic scientists and public health experts to attack the problem. Several of these members have used Safeway funding to support their work.

There is about one new case of breast cancer diagnosed every three minutes. This means that in just the time it takes to read this article, at least three women will learn they have breast cancer. “I asked myself, if I were one of these women, what would be on my wish list,” says Sukumar, who is also a Safeway-sponsored investigator. “I would want to treat the breast cancer without having a mastectomy, a treatment with no side effects and very high cure rates.” She is working with clinician-scientist Vered Stearns on a therapy that she believes could make these wishes a reality.

Sukumar says the majority of breast cancers—up to 95 percent—begin in the breast duct epithelial cells. While epithelial cells are at the root of the cancer, they account for just 5
percent to 10 percent of total breast cells. “So, if you get rid of the epithelial cells,” she says, “the cancer-causing cells are gone, but the breast stays intact.”

Sukumar and Stearns, with help from radiologist Nagi Khouri and surgeon Theodore Tsangaris, are testing a technique to deliver anticancer drugs directly to the epithelial cells
using a tiny catheter inserted through the nipple and directly into the breast ducts. In animal models, the technique worked better than traditional intravenous drug therapy. And in early clinical trials in patients, Stearns showed that the drug goes to the ducts and cleans out cells that are thinking about becoming tumors without causing any adverse side effects.

Stearns also is studying a drug that targets epigenetic changes in breast cancers. Epigenetic changes are alterations that occur without mutating the DNA. “Genetic changes are hard to reverse because they change the DNA sequence,” explains Stearns, “but epigenetic changes are potentially reversible because they do not alter the DNA.” Methylation—or specifically, too much methylation—is the most common culprit in
epigenetic alterations in cancer. If a key tumor-suppressing gene is over-methylated, it gets turned off. Stearns is studying a drug that blocks methylation and gets cells working right again.

Stearns is now studying a drug already on the market and approved for the treatment of other cancers for its ability to block methylation of breast cancer genes. To evaluate the drug’s effectiveness, Stearns is looking at tumor samples taken from newly diagnosed women before surgery. The women will take the drug orally in the days leading up to surgery. After surgery, Stearns and team will compare the tumor taken before they were given the drug with one taken afterwards to see the drug’s effect on breast cells. The hope, of course, is that it will re-activate tumor-suppressing genes shut down by epigenetic alterations.

Ben Ho Park is a cancer geneticist working to uncover the differences between normal DNA and breast cancer DNA. “We know that genes are mutated in cancer and that just one mistake in the genetic alphabet can lead to lots of problems,” says Park.

“We want to take advantage of the mistakes that are unique to cancer cells so that we can target them and leave healthy, normal cells unharmed.”

Park has collaborated in identifying breast cancer genes that are mutated only in cancer cells. He is currently screening drugs to see what they do to these mutated genes and has identified several compounds he believes may be useful in the treatment of breast cancer.

He is also working to develop a test for detection and management of early breast cancers. “Cancer has a unique genetic signature,” says Park. “We can look in the lymph nodes and blood, where cancer DNA is shed, for this signature.” He says breast cancers behave a certain way depending on the genes that are mutated within the cancer. It helps explain why seemingly similar cancers often respond quite differently to treatment. Park
believes that individualized therapies based on an individual cancer’s genetic signature could dramatically improve breast cancer survival rates.

Antonio Wolff’s research could make it possible to detect breast cancer from the DNA contained within a single drop of blood. Working with Sukumar, he has developed a method to analyze multiple genes from small samples of blood, serum or breast fluid. Called QM-SNP, the method allows them to find cancer cells hidden within large numbers of normal cells. “In other words, it finds the needle in the haystack,” says Wolff.

Such a method, he says, could be used to diagnose patients, to see if cancer cells still remain after therapy, and to monitor patients for recurrence of their cancers.

Cancer immunology expert Leisha Emens is using her funding to develop vaccines that change the way the body responds to cancer. Tumors are usually not recognized as dangerous by the immune system, and Emens says, “If for some reason the immune system does marshal the force to go after the cancer, the tumor cells change to avoid attack.” Her work focuses on tricking the immune system into recognizing and going after
breast cancer cells. She is using a vaccine that boosts the immune system and activates the T-cells, the immune system’s foot soldiers, to search out and kill cancer cells. She has begun clinical trials of the vaccine, which is being given in conjunction with chemotherapy.

Kala Visvanathan is interested in what causes breast cancer and how to prevent it. “We need less toxic approaches and ones that are cheap and safe,” she says. In broccoli sprouts, she may have found an approach that fits the bill. “Broccoli sprouts are cheap,
safe, oral, natural, inexpensive and high in a cell-detoxifying agent called sulforaphane,” she says. In animal models, sulforaphane has been shown to prevent breast cancer by turning on enzymes that protect cells.

Now, she is looking for the same evidence in people. With the help of women coming to Johns Hopkins for breast reduction surgeries and prophylactic mastectomies, Visvanathan will compare the breast tissue of women taking a broccoli-preparation prepared by the team to the breast tissue of women not eating broccoli sprouts to look for increased activity of the cancer detox enzymes.

NANCY E. DAVIDSON, director of the Kimmel Cancer Center Breast Cancer Program greets actress Reese Witherspoon as program co-director Sara Sukumar looks
on at the closing ceremony of the Avon Walk in Washington, D.C. The walk raised more than $135,000 for the Avon Foundation Breast Center at Johns Hopkins

The Hopkins 4K for Cancer is a completely student run, non-profit organization
dedicated to uniting communities across the country in the fight against cancer.
Their mission is spreading awareness, raising funds, and fostering hope. Now in
their 7th year, the students have raised over $511,000 for cancer prevention and
control. In addition to supporting the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge, which provides housing for many patients of the Kimmel Cancer Center, they also
support Dr. Jean Ford’s work in providing free prostate, colon, and breast cancer
screenings in underserved communities in Baltimore.

Meals Donated to Patients and Families
Customers at Let’s Dish! in Columbia and Timonium are preparing delectable meals—
some of the company’s most popular menu items—and donating them to patients at the
Kimmel Cancer Center. Patients and families staying at the Rockwell Memorial House
and Hackerman-Patz House, homelike residences for patients and families traveling to
Johns Hopkins for cancer treatment, are feasting on basil chicken with lime, ravioli del
sol, oven-roasted veggie pockets, and more thanks to the generosity of Let’s Dish! patrons.

Anyone interested in donating a meal can contact the Columbia store at 410-309-3415,
or the Timonium store at 410-560-5634, or check out

Articles in this Issue

Directors Letter

CIS Cancer Solving Investigations