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A powerful partnership

Donor supports leukemia research with funding and ideas

When Jeff Lion’s son, Josh, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) at 18 months old, doctors gave Josh a good chance of survival. When Josh’s cancer came back at age 5½, doctors were not nearly so optimistic.

“When Josh first got sick, they told me there was a 75 percent chance that he’d be OK, so I didn’t really sweat it,” Lion says. “Then when he relapsed and they told me he wasn’t going to make it, I started sweating it.”

But Lion wasn’t one to stand by idly while others tried to cure his son’s cancer. He wanted to be involved, too, even though he had no formal science training and had to teach himself everything he could about the disease—even its molecular structure.

After months of researching exactly how ALL affects the body and how it’s treated, Lion wasn’t satisfied. “I thought we could do better,” he says.

Having read up on ALL and paid close attention to Josh’s treatments, Lion sought out cancer researchers across the country, looking for someone who was trying to develop alternative therapies for leukemia— something to help those for whom nothing else seemed to be working.

Soon he found Daniel Vallera, Ph.D., a basic scientist at the University of Minnesota Cancer Center and professor in the Medical School’s Department of Therapeutic Radiology- Radiation Oncology. “Dan was working on a project that I was interested in, and I thought maybe we could collaborate,” Lion says.

Although Jeff and Josh Lion live in the Fresno, California, area, they spent a lot of time in Minnesota. Josh received treatment in Minnesota that put his recurrent cancer in remission again, and his father shared research ideas with Vallera at the Cancer Center.

Lion became so confident in the research he and Vallera had discussed that, in 2000, he pledged to help fund it. Since then, Vallera’s research has quickly progressed to clinical trials; two drugs have already been approved by the FDA for clinical studies. Lion, who has given more than $1 million to Vallera’s research over the years, continues to support it.

A quick progression

As its name suggests, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) tends to progress quickly. This blood cancer, the most common form of leukemia occurring in children, can lead to anemia and impaired organ function.

Radiation and chemotherapy are common treatments for ALL, although Vallera says the body can handle those therapies —especially radiation—only in low doses over an extended period.

That’s where his research comes into play. Five years ago, Vallera started working with anti-cancer proteins that are naturally produced by the body. He’s attempting to engineer those proteins, also known as antibodies, to bind to cancer cells, where they would deliver small, direct doses of radiation to the cells themselves—without harming the surrounding tissue. “It would localize radiation treatment to the site of the cancer,” he says.

This idea has been around for years, Vallera says, but with changing technology and new research, using the body’s own proteins to treat leukemia is becoming a more promising alternative therapy.

Vallera is currently working with the National Institutes of Health to design a “chemical arm” to help the antibodies stick to cancer cells.

In just five years, two drugs Vallera developed have received FDA approval for testing in clinical trials. Vallera says much of that progress can be attributed to Lion’s continuing support. “His funding has allowed us to stay with this line of research and look for new solutions if the drug isn’t perfect,” says Vallera.

Linda Burns, M.D., a hematologist/ oncologist at the University, is leading a Phase I clinical trial for the first drug, which is designed for adults. Pediatric oncologist Brenda Weigel, M.D., is leading a new clinical trial for the second drug, which is used to treat children. (New therapies are tested in adult clinical trials before they are tested in pediatric clinical trials.)

True teamwork

Now in sixth grade, Josh Lion is cancer-free again and doing well. He has minor heart damage from his chemotherapy, but his dad says he’s still allowed to play the sport he loves: football.

Vallera and Lion still talk regularly about the research. Lion wants to know that the work he’s supporting is still progressing.

“Dan came up with some ingenious ideas,” Lion says. “He took a small idea that I had and made it a great idea.”

And Vallera says none of this would have happened without Lion’s generous support. “Jeff has thought so much about Josh’s therapy that he knows the drug and what we’re trying to do,” Vallera says. “Not all donors need to be as involved as Jeff on the front lines. However, it’s wonderful that he is.”

Pleased with the progress of the research so far, Lion hopes to see these drugs become viable therapies for those who don’t respond to typical therapies or who relapse as Josh did.

“Our hope is to take the cure rate from 75 percent to 100 percent,” says Lion. “I want to see it happen. Five or six years from now, we’ll know if it will.”

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