Michael Verneris, M.D., senses an urgent need every time he looks into the faces of his young patients who have acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the Journey Clinic at University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital.
“The need to develop new treatments, less toxic and more effective than chemotherapy, is huge,” he says, “and I feel that sense of urgency every week when I sit next to a patient and have to explain that the options are slim.”
Fortunately, the flip side of Verneris’s work in the clinic is laboratory research, and he’s currently elbow-deep in a project that could one day lead to just the sort of new treatment he and his patients yearn for. The innovative research, led in tandem by Masonic Cancer Center members Verneris and Daniel Vallera, Ph.D., focuses on a bioengineered molecule that has the ability to hitch two of the body’s cells together: one, the cancer cell, and the other, a natural killer (NK) cell.
“Basically, we’re developing a biological drug that uses the body’s immune system to recruit NK cells to kill the leukemia cells,” explains Vallera, who has been at the forefront of this type of research since 2001, when he retooled his lab to genetically engineer targeted biological drugs, or drugs that are created from human genes.
Vallera’s lab has concentrated on making the drug, which is a vehicle for introducing that molecule into the body, while Verneris’s team does the testing. So far, the results are promising.
“It looks great in the test tube,” says Verneris. Now supported by a $100,000 grant from St. Baldrick’s Foundation, Vallera and Verneris will move next to testing the drug in mice and then, if all goes well, in humans.
“Private donations have become more and more important,” Vallera says, “because it’s difficult to get government funding for work like ours that focuses on drug development.”
What the research team has achieved so far with relatively small amounts of money is significant—and that, Verneris believes, is a testament to the Masonic Cancer Center and its intended purpose.
“What we’re able to do here is sit in a room with a bunch of really smart people and say, ‘what if?’ or ‘how can we?’” Verneris says. “That’s how this research began, with one of those discussions. There’s amazing synergy between the scientists here, and that’s the great strength of this Masonic Cancer Center.”