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Determining the genes that cause aggressive leukemia in children

Wilhelm_BrianDr. Brian Wilhelm’s lab is working on a “huge genetic puzzle” to determine which genes cause children to develop acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

“We’ve identified a small group of genes that are very specifically expressed in this kind of tumour. When we look at other healthy, normal blood cells we don’t see these genes being expressed,” says the assistant professor at L’Université de Montréal’s Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer.

Using both RNA and DNA sequencing, Dr Wilhelm’s lab has identified 34 candidate genes specifically expressed in AML with translocations in the MLL gene. The New Investigator award from TFRI will allow the team to take the next step: validating which of these genes are actually required for children to develop this deadly form of leukemia.

Leukemias represent one-third of cancer diagnoses in Canadian children. While some forms of the disease respond well to treatment, the prognosis for AML is grim. Only half of patients will fully recover.

“Part of the goal is really to try and not just learn about this disease, but to find ways to develop novel treatments and therapeutics,” says Dr. Wilhelm. “We have to think of new ways to specifically target the leukemia without causing the damaging secondary effects seen with standard chemotherapy.”

Dr. Guy Sauvageau, L’Université de Montréal, recommended Dr. Wilhelm for the award. “Brian is a hard worker, perseverant and shows great judgment and maturity. He has the hallmarks of an outstanding researcher who has now uncovered a novel set of genes.”

This award will enable his lab to focus on extending their preliminary findings, says Dr. Wilhelm, expanding knowledge of the genetic underpinnings of this disease.

“If you talk to most researchers, what motivates them is the idea that you can improve the lives of people suffering with cancer,” he says. “This award now gives us the resources to focus on advancing our project and to find ways to translate our work into novel clinical treatments. It’s really phenomenal!”

Patient Story: 

Léa Legault: http://www.tfri.ca/en/OurWork/patient-stories/blood-cancers/lea-legault

Project Title: Transcriptional and Epigenetic Consequences of Mll-AF9 Translocations

Award: $450,000 over three years

Mentoring Program: The Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant in Core Pathogenic Pathways in Human Leukemia

Mentors/PIs: Dr. Keith Humphries

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