Impact of Giving

These are the stories of the individuals and foundations who help advance Chicago medicine and science through their vision and philanthropy.

Alexandra Nikitas (front row, right) Executive Director, Cancer Research Foundation, joins members of the project research team (front row, left) Michelle Le Beau, PhD, (back row, from left) Harinder Singh, PhD, John Cunningham, MD, and Kevin White, PhD.

Donor Stories

Cutting-edge Project to Transform Cancer Science

For years, the Cancer Research Foundation has partnered with the University of Chicago Medical Center to support research on a variety of cancers. Most recently, the foundation pledged $3 million to support a groundbreaking project that will radically change cancer science.

A person diagnosed with therapy-related acute myeloid leukemia (t-AML), a cancer that typically arises five years after successful treatment of a first cancer diagnosis, will live an average of just eight months after his or her prognosis. To address the dynamic nature of this cancer as well as myriad other complex diseases, a new, interdisciplinary approach to medicine that combines a wide array of disciplines with the talents of a number of researchers has been established.

Dubbed “systems biology,” this new approach is the impetus behind a groundbreaking project led by a nationally recognized team of experts at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Combining cutting-edge blood stem cell research with genomic analysis, clinical trial work, and informatics—the study and engineering of information systems—this project has the potential to radically change cancer science.

Cancer foundation pledges $3 million
This potential triggered great interest from the Cancer Research Foundation (CRF), which pledged a lead grant of $3 million to assemble and support the interdisciplinary dream team representing basic, translational, and clinical science with a common interest in the mechanisms of cancer development and genetic susceptibilities.

“With the University’s leukemia program, its current standing in the clinical trial world, its access to patients, and its computing power with its partnership with Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago is in a special position to tackle this project,” says Alexandra Nikitas, Executive Director of the CRF.

Long-time supporters of the University of Chicago, the CRF is dedicated to helping find cures for cancer by funding young investigators and innovative laboratory and clinical cancer research projects. For more than 60 years, the University of Chicago and the CRF have partnered to advance new knowledge in the field of cancer.

Project aims to reduce t-AML cases
Through high-technology laboratory research and computation, the project aims to reduce the incidence of therapy-related leukemia by identifying individuals who are at risk for the disease. Additionally, it will allow researchers to select a therapy for treatment of the primary malignant disease to minimize the risk of developing a secondary cancer. And finally, by developing a systems approach to cancer research, the project will establish new methods for conducting research on complex genetic diseases at Chicago and at other institutions around the world.

The focus of the study is t-AML. Research shows that eight to ten percent of all five year cancer survivors develop t-AML (AML is the most common acute leukemia affecting adults). “Today, t-AML represents a major survivorship issue for cancer patients,” says Michelle Le Beau, PhD, Director, University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center and a leader of the research team. “This proposal has the potential to result in tangible improvements in the outcomes for patients with the most devastating form of acute leukemia.”

Unfortunately, she adds, the incidence of t-AML is rising as a result of the increasing number of cancer survivors at risk for developing this secondary cancer due to changes in the use of high-intensity therapy. “This plan represents contemporary biomedical science at its very best and is exactly the kind of work the University of Chicago should be doing,” adds Le Beau.

Interdisciplinary dream team
In addition to Le Beau, the interdisciplinary team consists of Kevin White, PhD, who leads the Institute for Genomics & Systems Biology, and is the James and Karen Frank Family Professor in the Departments of Human Genetics and Ecology and Evolution; John Cunningham, MD, Professor, Department of Pediatrics and Section Chief of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology; and Harinder Singh, PhD, the Louis Block Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, and a Howard Hughes Investigator.

“This is a spectacular team,” Nikitas says. “The University of Chicago has a wonderful investigative program, and we feel that we can make the most difference by providing early funding to a project like this when money is often not available from more traditional funding sources.”

The project will also serve as a pilot program on the effectiveness of a systems approach to complex diseases. “The University of Chicago has the opportunity to change the way cancer science is pursued, opening the door for researchers around the world to begin exploring treatment and predictive targets to attack other diseases,” Nikitas says. “I strongly believe that there is no other institution that can undertake a project of this nature right now.”

For more information, contact Callie Johnston at

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