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UT Southwestern participating in national initiative to sequence pediatric brain tumors

NCI funding will give more young cancer patients the opportunity for molecular diagnosis, targeted treatment, and the chance for a cure

Laura Klesse, M.D., Ph.D.

DALLAS – July 8, 2022 – UT Southwestern is joining with medical centers around the nation to apply advanced sequencing to pediatric brain tumors as part of the National Cancer Institute’s new Molecular Characterization Initiative, a subset of the Cancer Moonshot Childhood Cancer Initiative.

The goal is to expand the use of biomarker testing for children, adolescents, and young adults with brain and central nervous system tumors to improve diagnoses, advance research, and guide more patients into clinical trials.

The 200 participating centers are part of the National Cancer Institute’s Children’s Oncology Group formed to foster data-sharing and research collaboration. Under this initiative, researchers will apply advanced genetic sequencing and database utilization technologies to test tumor and blood DNA and RNA collected from pediatric patients. Children can be enrolled through Project:EveryChild.

“Today’s advanced genetic sequencing gives us the ability to look at the DNA changes within the tumor, helping to identify difficult-to-diagnose tumors much better,” said Laura Klesse, M.D., Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Pediatrics who is leading the initiative at UT Southwestern. “On a broader scale, this will enable a rapid growth in the databanks for these diseases, enhancing research efforts to understand what drives these tumors.”

Brain tumors are the second most common tumor type among pediatric patients and the No. 1 cause of disease death. “We’ve really done a great job of increasing survival rates in some cancers, like leukemia, where over 80% of kids are now long-term survivors,” said Dr. Klesse, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Children's Health and member of UTSW's Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center. “But with brain tumors and some of the rarer soft tissue sarcomas, advancements have plateaued in some ways. If we can understand them on a molecular level – what biological changes drive these to form – we can try to target these with drug therapies.”

Dr. Klesse, a Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care at UT Southwestern whose clinic sees about 50 new children with brain tumors each year, said this work addresses common challenges of tumor management.

“In gliomas, for example, it can be hard to distinguish between the more malignant and less malignant types without genetic sequencings,” she said. “In medulloblastoma, our most common brain malignancy, we have started to characterize the genetic signatures, but we have been limited by the low power of studies. This initiative will give us a much better sense of who falls into groups that we know do better versus the ones that don't do as well.”

The Simmons Cancer Center is one of only 52 centers nationwide designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute and the only one in North Texas. In 2021, the Simmons Cancer Center was ranked 24th among hundreds of cancer centers in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Its faculty members treat more than 8,000 new cancer patients a year, participate in 376 active clinical trials, and have more than $90 million in extramural cancer-focused research funding.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 26 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,900 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 4 million outpatient visits a year.