The Childhood Cancer Blog

From Student Researcher to Young Investigator: Meet one researcher searching for less toxic leukemia treatments

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By: Erin Weller

When Dr. Yang Ding was a student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, Dr. John Maris gave her class a lecture on neuroblastoma and then introduced a pair of unexpected guest speakers: Liz and Jay Scott, the parents of Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF) founder Alex Scott. 

She recalls the day she learned about ALSF very clearly: “I remember hearing about Alex's story and how she was just really spunky and then turned the lemonade stand into this really amazing, long-lasting foundation to find cures for kids like her. That was really impressive.” 

Dr. Ding always knew she wanted her research to impact children; finding a way to work with ALSF seemed like the perfect opportunity, so she applied for an ALSF Pediatric Oncology Student Training (POST) grant

For the past 11 years, the POST grant program has helped students to experience the pediatric oncology research field. Students train with a mentor to assist with an existing research project or begin an original project of their own. 

Like most POST grantees, the POST grant was the first time Dr. Ding received financial support to study a question in pediatric cancer. For Dr. Ding, the area of inquiry was clear:

How can pediatric oncologists choose more targeted agents to kill cancer cells without affecting the healthy cells in a child's developing body? 

Dr. Ding used pharmacogenomics, which is a field of research that studies how a person’s genes impact how they react to medication. She studied severe chemotherapy side effects like heart dysfunction and failure that affect children who are treated for acute myeloid leukemia (AML). 

Dr. Ding finished her education and went on to continue her work in pediatric oncology research. In 2020, she received her second ALSF grant—a Young Investigator Grant, which supplies critical startup funds for less experienced researchers to pursue promising research ideas.

Using her YI grant, Dr. Ding wanted to continue pursuing targeted, safer treatments for AML. Zeroing in on unique methods for targeted leukemia treatments, her team, which includes her mentors Dr. Kai Tan and Dr. Sarah Tasian, created a way of translating big genomics data into a biological system by utilizing small molecule inhibitors – molecules used to impede certain proteins that signal cancer cell development – to create targeted therapies. Using technology to run a new mathematical algorithm, Dr. Ding could select targets for combination therapy in Philadelphia chromosome-like acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

With the help of this algorithm, her team was able to predict which problematic pathways in leukemia cells were reliant on one another. Cutting off these pathways at the same time had the potential to kill cancer cells more effectively than just targeting them individually. 

Dr. Ding and her team hopes to translate this research into finding other pathways and drugs to use to cure Philadelphia chromosome-like ALL in future trials. While the preclinical results are looking promising, they’ll need deeper investigation before translating their research from the lab to the clinic.  

“We always want to develop as much convincing preclinical data as possible and that means doing really high-quality science in the lab and validating it very extensively before bringing it to patients,” said Dr. Ding. “Alex's really steps up and helps us with that. It helps fund this very necessary and critical research before we can ultimately translate these discoveries to improve cures for children with cancer.”

ALSF supports all phases and stages of childhood oncology research, Attracting and retaining the best and brightest early career scientists is critical to the future of childhood cancer research. Funding at this stage will encourage and steer promising researchers toward long-term careers in pediatric oncology investigation
Learn more about the ALSF grant program.