Can Ethnicity Hold Clues to Painful Side Effects in Young Leukemia Patients? Roswell Park Wins Grant to Find Out

Song Yao, PhD, will lead a new National Cancer Institute-funded effort to better understand why African-American women are more likely to get an aggressive form of breast cancer.

Rally Foundation for Childhood Cancer Research supports work aimed at preventing debilitating bone side effects

BUFFALO, N.Y. — A multidisciplinary research team led by Song Yao, PhD, Professor of Oncology in the Department of Cancer Prevention and Control at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and Kara Kelly, MD, Chair of the Roswell Park Oishei Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Program, has received a critical grant award from the Rally Foundation for Childhood Cancer Research enabling a deeper look into which pediatric patients are most likely to suffer bone pain as a result of their leukemia treatment.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common cancer diagnosis among children and adolescents. Treatment of ALL is largely successful in this group, with more than 90% of patients cured with a standard chemotherapy regimen that involves multiple chemotherapeutic drugs. While the cure rate is high, the treatment is known to produce some severe side effects, namely bone toxicities, including painful fractures and osteonecrosis, a condition in which the bone tissue dies.

Previous work by this same Roswell Park team, which includes Qianqian Zhu, PhD, Associate Professor of Oncology in Roswell Park’s Department of Biostatistics & Bioinformatics, resulted in surprising findings — Hispanic children were less likely to have bone toxicities than non-Hispanic children.

“Hispanic individuals often carry genetic inheritance from multiple ancestral backgrounds, including European, African and Native American,” explains Dr. Yao. “We found that the protection conferred by Hispanic ethnicity was driven by African ancestry, and that a higher percentage of African ancestry was associated with lower risk of bone toxicities.”

The team also discovered a new genetic variant linked to bone toxicities using an advanced statistical approach they designed.

The $50,000 Rally Foundation grant will help to fund a broader study to confirm their previous findings and make new discoveries with a larger sample size. In addition, the team will measure blood levels of vitamin D — a nutrient critical to bone health — and analyze whether vitamin D, genetic variants and ancestry may work together to determine a patient’s risk for developing bone toxicities.

“We expect that our findings will provide a better understanding of the risk of bone toxicities caused by treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” says Dr. Kelly, “and hope that they may help us to develop tools that can be used to prevent debilitating side effects and improve quality of life for  many young cancer patients.”