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Childhood cancer investigator lands ‘Lemonade Stand’ grant

Jul. 12, 2012, 10:52 AM

Chin Chiang, Ph.D., professor of Cell and Developmental Biology and member of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center faculty, has been awarded a $200,000 grant to study an aggressive form of childhood cancer.

Chin Chiang, Ph.D.

The two-year Innovation Award from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF) will help fund Chiang’s research on rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS), the most common soft tissue malignancy in children.

Approximately 350 children are diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcomas in the United States every year, according to the American Cancer Society. The soft tissue tumors can occur anywhere in the body and account for 5 percent to 10 percent of all pediatric tumors.

There are several different forms of RMS and they are divided into subtypes. Most RMS is thought to develop from muscle stem cells because the tumor expresses skeletal muscle markers. However, RMS is also found in other tissues that do not contain muscle stem cells, suggesting that the tumor-initiating cells for RMS still have not been deciphered.

Chiang, who works in the Vanderbilt Center for Molecular Neuroscience, has been interested in pediatric cancer for a number of years because many of these tumors originate from developmental programs that have gone awry. He and his colleagues have been studying a signaling molecule known as Shh, which has already been associated with a form of RMS.

“Although my laboratory is primarily interested in Shh signaling in brain development and a form of cancer called medulloblastoma, we serendipitously discovered that transgenic mice expressing activated Shh signaling in the brain developed RMS with 100 percent incidence,” explained Chiang.

The grant from ALSF will help Chiang and his colleagues identify a cellular origin for RMS that is linked to the Shh pathway.

Chiang earned his Ph.D. in Genetics and Cell Biology from Washington State University. He served as a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and an associate at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Baltimore.

Chiang joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1997 and was named a full professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in 2008.

Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation emerged from the front-yard lemonade stand of cancer patient Alexandra “Alex” Scott. In 2000, 4-year-old Alex announced that she wanted to set up a lemonade stand to raise money to help find a cure for all children with cancer. The little girl died in 2004, but since that first event, the nonprofit foundation bearing her name has evolved into a national fundraising movement.

The research grant awarded to Chiang is among 48 new grants given to researchers at 34 institutions and universities across the country in the first ALSF funding cycle for 2012.

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