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Hyundai award helps drive hope for cancer research

Sep. 19, 2013, 9:00 AM

Keley Roller was among the patients battling cancer who turned out for last week’s Hyundai Hope On Wheels event at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. (photo by Steve Green)

Emmanuel Volanakis, M.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics and Hematology/Oncology, was awarded a $250,000 Hyundai Hope On Wheels grant last week for his ongoing research into T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), an aggressive blood cancer.

This is the second grant Volanakis has received from Hyundai since the company and local dealerships began their partnership with the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in 2007.

To date, Hyundai Hope On Wheels has awarded more than $810,000 to pediatric cancer researchers at Vanderbilt.

Representatives from the automaker and local dealerships presented a check to Volanakis at a Hope Grant ceremony Sept. 11, which included Children’s Hospital patients who are battling cancer.

The children also dipped their hands in colorful paint and placed their handprints on a white Hyundai Santa Fe to represent their personal stories of courage and hope.

“We are honored and fortunate to have the continuing support of the Hyundai Hope On Wheels to support our discovery research in the area of pediatric oncology,” said Debra Friedman, M.D., director of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and E. Bronson Ingram Professor of Pediatric Oncology.

“This year’s recipient, Dr. Emmanuel Volanakis, has the honor of being a Hyundai Hope on Wheels Scholar for the second time and such support has permitted significant progress in the understanding of a specific subtype of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common malignancy in childhood.”

Volanakis will employ the grant funds to investigate and understand how cancer cells hijack normal developmental processes in T-cell ALL, a subtype of the leukemia.

He notes how support from the community and corporations is important to ensure that research can be carried out.

“I focus on a subtype of acute lymphoblastic leukemia that requires particularly intensive chemotherapy right now and still doesn’t have as good of outcomes as we would hope,” said Volanakis. “I am hoping to understand the genetic changes that contribute to the generation of this disease. We’re learning that some of these changes are reversible. They are not changes in the DNA itself, but in how the DNA is used that gives us the hope that we can turn on some of the anti-cancer genes as an effective way of treating the disease.

“I think this is a fantastic time in terms of the agents that are coming down the pike and our understanding of how to target them effectively,” Volanakis said.

The Hope On Wheels’ Hope Grants are awarded to pediatric cancer researchers each September for National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

Between 12,000 and 13,000 children are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States.
The Hyundai initiative has raised more than $72 million for pediatric research over the past 15 years.

“While this is a very important milestone, we’re aware that there is a lot more to be done,” said Robert Williams, regional sales manager for Hyundai Motor America. “Our mission is simple and remains very clear, and that is to help kids fight cancer.”

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