When St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital scientists Dr. Michael Dyer and Dr. Alberto Pappo decided to spark a potential cure for pediatric solid tumors, they turned to a basic childhood principle: Sharing.
St. Jude, in collaboration with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, launched the Childhood Solid Tumor Network last year as a way to distribute data, research, and most importantly, samples of tumor cells for other scientists to replicate and study on their own.
It’s the first network of its kind and it’s priceless. Not only does it give researchers around the world access to work completed by St. Jude scientists, it’s free from complex contracts and agreements for use. It’s literally free. The labs that request the information only pay the shipping cost.
Even though St. Jude isn’t being compensated for sharing its resources, the doctors said there’s a greater value beyond remuneration — fresh eyes.
“For every sample we grow here, if there are five or 10 other researchers around the world studying, that’s an exponential increase in research,” says Dyer, chair of the Developmental Neurobiology Department at St. Jude. “That’s a really great way to advance the mission of St. Jude. By freely sharing, what you do is dramatically expand that research.”
Dyer and Pappo are co-leaders of St. Jude’s Developmental Biology and Solid Tumor Program. It took seven years of work by their team to create data and research resources and to grow more than 15,000 vials of 100 different patient tumors from a dozen types of cancer, available for free on their network.
That means if a child is diagnosed with a solid tumor form of cancer in Japan, the doctor can look at the network catalog online to see if research and samples of that tumor are available at St. Jude. All it takes is completion of a request form and pay the cost of shipping.
Those scientists don’t have to collaborate with St. Jude. No strings attached.
“We wanted to tear down barriers to scientists around the world studying childhood solid tumors,” Dyer says. “Every sort of traditional barrier — the cost, you have to collaborate, there’s complicated legal documents — we’ve minimized that and tried to make it as easy as possible.”
Since the network went live, scientists from America and 14 other countries such as China, Australia and, most recently, Brazil, filed more than 450 requests for information. St. Jude sent more than 1,000 samples — tumors to grow and ones to study in their labs.
“There may be tumors that others are studying, that we are not, for example very rare tumors,” says Pappo, director of the Solid Tumor Division. “They may have the opportunity to develop that and study that model. The whole purpose is just to advance the science and try to improve outcomes for this patient.”
Solid tumors of the bone, muscle, kidney, eye, and other organs except the brain account for about 30 percent of childhood cancers. The overall cure rate is 75 percent, but the rate for long-term survival if the cancer returns remains low. Part of the problem is that there are so few samples since three quarters of the children who are diagnosed with solid tumors are cured.
That leaves maybe a few dozen cases a year of recurrence. It’s more difficult to organize clinical trials and make breakthroughs with a small number of cases, so offering their science to others increases the chances of a cure.
“There hasn’t been a lot of progress on these recurrent tumors,” Dyer says. “This is what’s killing the children, so having models of the most aggressive disease allows us to try to identify better therapies.”
The idea for the solid tumor network came to Pappo and Dyer in 2010 when they were working on the St. Jude-Washington University Pediatric Cancer Genome Project. The project sequenced the complete set of genes of more than 800 children and adolescents with a variety of tumors, including solid tumors. These are some of the least understood and most difficult cancers to treat.
The project identified new mutations in childhood cancer. That raised a new concern. “If something is discovered, then how are we going to study it?” Dyer asked. “You can’t go back to the patient and get more tumor, usually, so we needed some way to grow those tumors.
They needed to be proactive, to create a parallel model that reproduced tumor samples to study years down the road. They also needed fresh eyes to research these tumors as well.
Pappo and Dyer aren’t worried that another scientist outside of St. Jude might discover the cure before they do. Prizes, money, and fame aren’t why they created the network. It’s a moral imperative.
“It’s all about the kids and keeping the hope alive,” Pappo says. “It’s about St. Jude, a place like no other where parents can find hope and comfort and children can live to dream another dream.”
“We fully embrace that,” Dyer says. “Our experience has been that it comes back. It pays forward. What will end up happening, instead of somebody taking your sample and doing something that you might have done or competing with you, they’ll make a discovery and then share that with you. The benefits far outweigh the potential limitations.”