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Children's National Immunology Expert Receives Three-Year Grant from Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation to Develop Immune-Based Therapy Using Natural Killer (NK) Cells to Treat Tumors

Washington, DC— Children’s National Health System physician-scientist Conrad Russell Y. Cruz, MD, PhD, was awarded a $450,000 grant from the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF) to develop novel cell-based therapies for pediatric cancer.

The “A” grant encourages scientists to develop innovative treatments and cures that impact children with cancer and will provide Dr. Cruz and his team funding for three years.  Dr. Cruz is the Director of the Translational Research Laboratories within the Cell Enhancement and Technologies for Immunotherapy (CETI) program and a Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation faculty member.

Gliomas and medullastomas account for approximately one-third of all pediatric brain tumors and children diagnosed with relapsed or recurrent brain tumors have limited therapeutic options. Because of the complexity of the tumor environment in the nervous system, most cell therapy development is extremely challenging. Additionally, tumor antigen identification, and culture timing, makes cell therapy development difficult when the patients are high risk, and need immediate treatment. Given these barriers, a readily available, off-the-shelf, immune-based therapy that is capable of resisting the state of immunosuppression in the sick patient, is critical.

Dr. Cruz will work alongside Children’s National neuro-oncologist Eugene Hwang, MD, and collaborators from MD Anderson Cancer Center led by Eric Yvon, PhD, to use natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell in the immune system) from umbilical cord blood as an off-the-shelf therapy for attacking tumors without harming host cells. “Using umbilical cord blood as a cell source will allow us to bank diverse cell products that can be best paired with a patient’s particular cancer.” said Cruz. “Additionally, we believe that by genetically modifying these cells, we can allow them to overcome the tactics used by cancers to circumvent the immune response.”

With grant support, Dr. Cruz and his team will work to develop natural killer (NK) cell therapies for solid, high-risk brain tumors in children. The research will focus on immune-deficient patients receiving chemotherapy, suffering from primary immune disorders, patients who have received organ and stem cell transplants, and those at high risk for malignant tumors. The therapies Dr. Cruz plans to develop are innate immune-based cellular therapeutics, and he ultimately hopes to see them adopted in the clinical setting.

Catherine Bollard, MD, MBChB, Chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology, and renowned hematologist and immunologist leads the CETI program at Children’s National, and will provide oversight and support for the duration of the grant, serving as Cruz’s primary mentor. Bollard is excited for the work to come, and speaks highly of Dr. Cruz, ”he joined my team over two years ago, and I am confident that his creativity, dedication, innovative thinking, and expertise will serve him well as he works to develop groundbreaking, novel immunotherapies for children, over the next three years and beyond.”

Contact: Emily Hartman at 202-476-4500

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