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Kelliher awarded Hyundai Hope on Wheels grant

On hand to recognize the $250,000 grant awarded to UMMS from Hyundai Hope on Wheels were, from left, Michelle Kelliher, PhD, professor of cancer biology; Nicole Hermance, research associate; Ken Bloech, Eastern Region General Manager, Hyundai Motor America; Justine Roderick, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in cancer biology; GSBS students A. Hyun Choi and Matija Zelic; and Peter Newburger, MD, chief of pediatric hematology/oncology at UMass Memorial Medical Center and professor of pediatrics and cancer biology.

Michelle A. Kelliher, PhD, professor of cancer biology, received a $250,000 grant from Hyundai Hope On Wheels and Worcester-area Hyundai dealers to support research for the development of targeted therapies for children with refractory T cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a type of cancer characterized by increased numbers of immature lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). Most children with T-ALL are cured following chemotherapy; however, 20 to 30 percent of children fail to respond and as a result, many of these children succumb to the disease. The goal of Dr. Kelliher’s work is to understand why these children fail to respond to treatment in order to develop new and effective therapies.

“We’re grateful to Hyundai for their support of our cancer research efforts, and for their commitment to saving the lives of children affected by this disease,” said Kelliher. “In a challenging funding environment for NIH-supported pediatric cancer research, efforts like this one from Hyundai Motor America are critical to maintaining momentum for our research program.”

UMMS is one of 41 institutions to receive of Hope On Wheels grants. In all, Hope On Wheels will award $10.25 million in grants this September in honor of National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

“Federal funding for pediatric cancer research has been increasingly difficult to receive in recent years,” said Peter Newburger, MD, chief of pediatric hematology/oncology at UMass Memorial Medical Center and professor of pediatrics and cancer biology. “Philanthropic funding is essential to continuing research efforts, such as those by Dr. Kelliher aimed at controlling and curing pediatric cancer.”

Kelliher and her research team take leukemic cells directly from relapsed pediatric patients and expand them in immunodeficient mouse models. They then determine which genes or pathways render these cells resistant to treatment. They then use these mouse models engrafted with primary patients’ cells to test the efficacy of new small molecule inhibitors or other combination therapies.

“This approach will make a huge difference in our ability to develop and evaluate targeted therapies for difficult-to-treat cancers,” said Kelliher. “In the past, we’ve used cells lines, often obtained from adult patients, and grown for decades in culture. It’s become clear that therapeutic studies using conventional cell line-derived xenografts do not predict performance in the clinic. Our ability to use primary leukemic cells from relapsed pediatric patients will increase our ability to efficiently develop targeted therapies for these children.”

The donation is part of Hope On Wheels’ annual September Campaign celebrating National Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month, as a well as a new effort by Hyundai to thank its millions of owners who have helped Hope On Wheels raise more than $72 million for pediatric cancer research funding over the past 15 years. Hyundai Hope Grants fund research projects with the greatest potential to improve the lives of children battling cancer. Since 2011, UMMS has received $350,000 from Hope On Wheels.

“Hope On Wheels is our fight to end pediatric cancer, and is at the soul of our work at Hyundai. With each car we sell, we make a contribution with our dealers to end this disease,” said John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America. “We’ve now raised over $72 million dollars, and ask everyone to join us this September on Facebook to raise awareness about this cause.”

Hope On Wheels builds public awareness about the importance of this cause and provides funds to nonprofit children’s hospitals across the U.S. for pediatric cancer research and programs. The nonprofit is funded by Hyundai and its U.S. dealers. With every new vehicle sold in the U.S., Hyundai and its dealers make a contribution to Hope On Wheels.