Dr. Wetmore Discusses This New Opportunity to Help Children

Brain tumors are the most common solid tumor in children, accounting for approximately 25% of all childhood cancers. Diffuse midline gliomas (DIPGs) represent approximately 50% of all pediatric brainstem tumors and due to their location, cannot be removed surgically. However, new hope has been instilled at Phoenix Children’s Hospital (PCH) with the Gateway for Cancer Research’s approval of a $1.5 million grant to help physician-scientists at PCH make progress in combating this aggressive pediatric brain tumor.

Dr. Cynthia Wetmore, M.D., Ph.D., is the division chief of Hematology/Oncology and director of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at PCH. The renowned pediatric oncologist is leading a study called CUPID that will test a therapy combining a customized peptide vaccine with a checkpoint inhibitor to combat the incurable pediatric brain stem cancer. This is a collaboration with Stephen Johnston, Ph.D., at Arizona State University, who has developed the technology (a chip) for identifying peptides in the patients’ blood to be used for the vaccine. If ultimately successful, the research could be the first therapeutic progress for DIPG in more than 30 years.

“I’ve committed my life and career to helping children battle cancer,” Dr. Wetmore says. “This is the deadliest form, and I want these children and their families to have hope. We are excited for the collaboration with PCH and ASU. It feels as though the stars have aligned to make an impact on this disease.”

There has yet to be a treatment for this form of tumor, left only to shrink and return with radiation. The grant will allow for clinical trials with the new therapy developed by Dr. Wetmore and Stephen.

“We have discovered that proteins with ‘typos’ are produced in tumors and that the patients are making antibodies to these disordered proteins,” Dr. Wetmore says. “Our proposal seeks to give a peptide vaccine that consists of the 20 most common protein ‘typos’ that are made by the DIPG tumors. We propose to administer this vaccine in combination with two checkpoint inhibitors that we hope will further boost the patient’s own immune system to fight the tumor. Kids will be enrolled and treated right here at PCH.”

Gateway has funded more than 170 patient-focused clinical trials at renowned institutions worldwide. Dr. Wetmore feels this, along with philanthropic support, can assist in cutting-edge ways to find cures for rare cancers such as this.

“I’ve walked the halls and cared for so many families whose children have lost the battle with cancer. Some families have even given the precious gift of tumor cells from their loved one who has passed to assist in research. It is amazing that they are part of finding a cure even after they are gone, leaving a true legacy. This grant will help get important studies off the ground for advances in cancer care.”