St. Jude researchers make medical breakthrough

(WMC-TV) -The researchers at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital are the mechanics of modern science.  Instead of working on car accelerators and brake pads, they are fine-tuning patient's cancer treatments.

Those researchers are celebrating a medical breakthrough and, to best understand it, you may have to think back to shop class.

Doctor Suzanne Baker and her team of researchers at St. Jude study the rarest and deadliest forms of brain tumors in children, known as High Grade Gliomas.  They are the cancers that form on a patient's brain stem.

"And for these kids, 90 percent of these kids will be dead within two years of diagnosis," said Dr. Baker.

Surgery is not an option for these tumors.  Radiation does not work either.

"For many of the children, the tumor is ultimately resistant, and continues to infiltrate the brain in a way that is basically life ending," Baker stated.

That is because the cancer cells grow into surrounding brain tissue.

Dr. Baker compares the abnormal growth of cancer cells, or gain of function, and how the body tries to stop them, or tumor suppressors, to driving a car.

"These gain of functions are sort of like the accelerator on a car.  You need it for the car to work properly.  But if you've got the accelerator to the floor by mistake, that's going to cause a lot of trouble. And the tumor suppressors are like the brakes, and you don't need them all the time but you must have them at the right time to prevent some disastrous accident from happening," Baker explained.

To find out why the accelerator is stuck on some cells, and the brakes don't work on others, researchers developed a way to map out the cancer's DNA.

It's called the St. Jude Pediatric Cancer Genome Project, and with it came a breakthrough.

"We found a new mutation in these tumors, in 78 percent of tumors, which is a staggering number.  You get very excited if you find a mutation in say 25 percent of tumors.  So this high frequency tells us that this specific genetic change is almost required to form this kind of brain stem tumor.  We were very excited when we found this because there are actually drugs already available to counteract the activity of that specific gene," Baker said.

When asked if this was a significant breakthrough, Dr. Baker responded, "It's very exciting, we were really thrilled about that."

The discovery allowed a clinical trial to get underway almost immediately.  Though the trial is still in the early stages, Dr. Baker believes her team's work will reduce the number of fatalities in children who have brain stem cancer.

"The reason that we have these opportunities is the tremendous generosity in giving money to support St. Jude," Baker said.

The survival rate for children who develop brain tumors is anywhere between 10 and 30 percent, and those numbers drop even lower if cancer is on the brain stem.

You can help support research that leads to cures by purchasing a ticket for this year's St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway.

Tickets are $100 and are can be purchased by calling 1-800-224-6681.  You can also purchase tickets at Regions Bank, Ashley Furniture Homestore and Stash.

Take a virtual tour of the St. Jude Dream Home.  Watch to see who wins in a live broadcast from noon to 2 p.m.

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