Dr. Yang of Children's National Research Institute

Unlocking treatments for neuroblastoma

Dr. Yang of Children's National Research Institute

Dr. Jianhua Yang talks about his latest research into neuroblastoma treatments at Children’s National Hospital.

Curing neuroblastomas is going to take years of investigation and persistence, and the team at the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National Hospital is laying the foundation for breakthroughs. Recently, Jianhua Yang, Ph.D., and his colleagues completed a study providing proof-of-concept, preclinical evidence for exploring ulixertinib as a novel pharmaceutical approach for targeting neuroblastomas.

The big picture

This inhibitor blocks a type of communication inside a cell called the extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERK), which are believed to drive the growth of neuroblastomas and various cancers. In a study of preclinical models published in Cancers, ulixertinib strongly inhibited the proliferation of high-risk neuroblastoma cells inside and outside of living organisms. Investigators also found that ulixertinib sensitized the cancer cells for treatment with the conventional chemotherapy drug, doxorubicin. Yang and his colleagues hope that finding inhibitors like ulixertinib could someday unlock a modality for treating neuroblastomas.

What we hope to discover

“We are trying to figure out if we can find a novel target, which no one has studied,” Yang said. “Some kinases, over-expressed in neuroblastoma and medulloblastoma, are interesting in terms of their expression pattern. We want to learn how they can be activated and promote tumor growth, and then we can develop therapies to safely target that cellular change.”

Neuroblastoma is the most common pediatric extracranial tumor, accounting for 15% of childhood malignancy-related deaths. Although some lower-risk versions of the disease can be cured, high-risk neuroblastomas have proven invulnerable to treatments for decades.

Moving the field forward

Working multiple research tracks, Yang’s lab is also investigating antibody-based immunotherapy that could be used to block the growth of neuroblastomas. Combined with chemotherapies, he and others at Children’s National believe these potential therapies could change the way pediatric cancers are treated and improve the quality of life for survivors.

“It’s like a religion,” Yang said. “You have to believe in yourself. The chance to fail is high, but you have to believe. If we can develop one or two drugs before my retirement, that’s a huge success.”