ATLANTA — A brain researcher at Georgia State University has been awarded a five-year, $3.06 million grant from the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health to create a model for personalized cancer treatments.
Tricia King, a professor of psychology at Georgia State, has partnered with Dr. Tobey MacDonald, a pediatric neuro-oncologist and professor at Emory University, to conduct a multisite project identifying factors that contribute to cognitive impairments in young survivors of brain cancer. The project has the potential to improve treatment outcomes for patients with many types of cancer.
“We’re looking at what are the most robust environmental resources, the strongest clinical risk factors, and the most important genetic DNA and RNA sequencing that relate to cognitive impairments,” King said.
King studies medulloblastoma, a form of cancer in which a fast-growing tumor forms at the base of the brain, which requires radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. Though these treatments are largely effective in fighting the cancer, they also can result in devastating consequences, especially for pediatric, adolescent and young adult patients.
However, these outcomes range widely between patients. While some survivors thrive after treatment, others are left with severe impairments that limit their ability to live independently in adulthood. King has been studying which factors contribute to patients’ outcomes.
“In some ways, we’ve been building up to this project for 20 years,” King said. “We wanted to have the power to have a larger data set with a richer, more nuanced look at the areas we know are really important to outcomes. That is why we invited our collaborators at University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, to join in this larger scale project.”
Not only does she look at clinical factors, such as patient age and tumor type, but she also considers environmental factors such as material hardships, access to medical care and school quality. However, King says this still does not tell the whole story.
“One of the things that we’re finding is that you take two different individuals—same age, same sex, same age at treatment, same exact tumor type, same environmental resources—and one is devastated, and one is doing ok,” King said. “There’s something else going on.”
With financial support from this award, King and her colleagues will also study the impact of patients’ genetics on their outcomes. Their approach is unique in that they are not focused on identifying genes that cause cancer, but rather those that may determine a patient’s resilience through cancer treatment.
“If we can identify the genetics that put individuals at risk for cognitive problems, we might be able to reduce the chemo and radiation therapy that specific individuals receive so that targeted treatments cure the cancer, yet do not create cognitive difficulties,” King said.
“For the other people that we know have the resilience—both genetic and environmental resiliencies—they can move forward with the traditional treatments,” she added.
In this way, the project will build a model for personalized treatment plans based on patients’ environmental, clinical and genetic risk factors.