It’s one of the first lessons you learned in preschool: the fine art of sharing. By reaching out to others, the fun is multiplied. Now, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is applying that playground practice to childhood solid tumors—with dramatic results.
St. Jude researchers and clinicians have built the world’s most extensive repository of pediatric solid tumor samples and drug screening data. And they are sharing that bounty with scientists around the world.
It’s a project with no place for ego or financial gain. The goal is simple: to advance the care of children with solid tumors worldwide.
Hold hands, play together
In 2010, St. Jude and Washington University School of Medicine joined forces to decode the genomes of childhood cancer patients. St. Jude scientists immediately began to ask, “How will we test drugs against tumors with these specific mutations?”
They didn’t have many choices. Existing tumor cell lines that had been cultured for decades were not necessarily useful. Then St. Jude scientists realized they might be able to use patient tissue samples to grow tumors in the lab.
“We see a large number of diverse patients here — everything from the most common pediatric solid tumors, like neuroblastoma, to incredibly rare tumors. And that gives us an opportunity to build a resource that spans the continuum of solid tumors. We have the expertise and the infrastructure to grow them all in the laboratory,” explains Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator Michael Dyer, PhD, of St. Jude Developmental Neurobiology.
Share your toys
In a clinical trial led by St. Jude oncologist Sara Federico, MD, nearly 200 patients undergoing surgery for solid tumors agreed to let scientists use part of their tumor samples for the project. After removing identifying information to protect patient confidentiality, scientists went to work. They sequenced each tumor, examined the anatomy of the tissue and scrutinized the structure using technology called electron microscopy.
Each tumor has its own quirks, requiring its own set of conditions to grow in the lab. “You really have to figure it out for each tumor,” Dyer says.
As the collection of tumors grew, St. Jude scientists used them to see which drugs were most effective against particular mutations. Researchers also worked to pinpoint the specific drug concentration required to kill the cancer cells.
The amount of data generated is vast.
“As we started growing more and more tumors, we started to realize, ‘Wow! This is a really amazing collection,’” Dyer recalls. “We could sit on this information and be the only ones in the world to have it, but that wouldn’t achieve our goal.
“So we thought: ‘Why not share it?’”
The Childhood Solid Tumor Network enables St. Jude to do just that. Researchers around the globe can obtain data and tumor samples free of charge, with no obligation for further collaboration. Requests for resources are reviewed by Dyer and Alberto Pappo, MD, co-leaders of the Developmental Biology and Solid Tumor Program, in consultation with an advisory panel. Requestors are responsible only for shipping costs.
Beth Stewart, MD, of St. Jude Oncology, has shipped samples to colleagues throughout the United States, as well as to Asia, Australia and Europe. She cites several aspects of the program that make it remarkable.
“We have the largest bank of resources available,” she says, “and the way we’ve created these resources is unique. Usually when you give something away to someone, you expect something in return. That’s not the case here. It’s nice if they collaborate with us, but they aren’t required to do so. It’s a goodwill offering that we’re making for the betterment of these pediatric patients.”
The Childhood Solid Tumor Network is helping St. Jude build robust partnerships around the globe. Many researchers who have obtained data and samples have followed the hospital’s lead, eagerly sharing their results. Not only does the network forge new relationships, but it unites scientists and clinicians in a common goal.
“It’s a really powerful message,” Dyer says, “to be able to say, ‘It’s free. All you do is pay for shipping. We want you to take this and follow your ideas.’ Already several papers have been published using data from this project. It’s pretty amazing to think about how far-reaching the impact will be.”
Sharing data, expertise and resources has its own inherent rewards, Stewart says.
“We have such phenomenal resources and incredible collaborators,” she says. “I feel incredibly blessed every day I walk through the doors of the hospital that I have the opportunity to do this type of work.”
From Promise, Autumn 2015