Why This Funder is Bankrolling "Precision Medicine" to Attack Acute Myeloid Leukemia

This year, the American Cancer Society estimates some 18,000 Americans will be diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), and over 10,000 people will die from AML. It’s aggressive and hard to cure, and last week the St. Baldrick’s Foundation announced $24.7 million in grants to address childhood cancer; part of that will be used to form an international federation of organizations devoted to developing precise AML cures uniquely tailored to a patient’s genetic makeup.

Precision medicine, this approach is called, and St. Baldrick’s gift—stemming from a brand new, inaugural grant program called the Genius Award—is ambitiously bringing Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Oregon Health and Science University, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute, and Sage Bionetworks (a nonprofit research organization) together to pioneer new data collection, analysis, and transmission techniques that could substantially boost AML survival rates.

The idea is to conduct real-time experiments on AML cases, in which physicians working with patients in Phoenix or Portland can interface with researchers at Sage Bionetworks and the Fred Hutchinson Institute, both in Seattle, to select the best treatment options available.

This is particularly appealing due to the changeable nature of AML. Often, the cancer begins as chronic, slow-moving leukemia, then morphs into the acute version seemingly overnight, leaving physicians—and all hopes of a permanent cure—in the dust. The lightning-fast transmission of data could be the key to permanent AML remission, and that fact clearly isn’t lost on St. Baldrick’s.

And this funder's interest in AML doesn’t stop with this admittedly sizeable Genius Award commitment. Not by a longshot. Look through the remainder of St. Baldrick’s 2014 grant recipients and you'll find a whole host of scientists seeking to slay AML demons, whether it’s by utilizing a precision medicine model, as with the Genius Award project, or by identifying patients with a higher risk of relapse, or by genetically engineering a patient’s immune cells to help them identify the cancer and launch a response.

Nearly 20 percent of St. Baldrick’s latest Fellows are explicitly seeking out new treatments and approaches to AML, and AML projects are well represented on the St. Baldrick’s Scholars list as well.

The interesting thing is that St. Baldrick’s is strictly a children’s cancer charity, and AML is primarily an adult cancer. Just one thousand children will be diagnosed with AML this year, and statistics suggests that most of them will be cured. Our bet is that this is tied in with St. Baldrick’s latest focus on adolescent and young adult cancers, bumping up their foundation’s priorities a bit, age-wise, in order to benefit this segment of the population where research has been lacking.