17-year-old wonders about bone marrow donor; soon, she’ll get answers

April 18, 2014 | by   

For most of her life, Southern California teenager Kayla Saikaly described herself as healthy, even very healthy. She played basketball. She never missed school with as much as a fever. Her worst childhood illness was nothing more than a cold.

Kayla Saikaly, 17, and her mother Samar fought her aplastic anemia together. They will meet the match who donated bone marrow for her lifesaving transplant at City of Hope May 9.

Kayla Saikaly, 17, and her mother, Samar, fought her aplastic anemia together. They will meet the donor of her lifesaving bone marrow at City of Hope on May 9.

Then, when she was 13, her nose started bleeding after a basketball game. That incident, coupled with unexplained bruising on her arms and legs, worried her mother. She took Kayla to a physician. A series of tests ruled out leukemia, but the Cerritos teenager was found to have aplastic anemia.

“It basically means your bone marrow is not producing the blood cells it needs to be producing – red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets,” explained Kayla, now 17. “Once those get thrown off, everything gets thrown off in your whole body. One day I was healthy, and the next, it was like everything was not right in my body.”

Her doctors at Kaiser Permanente considered a bone marrow transplant, but neither Kayla’s mother Samar, father Riad or older brother Alex were a suitable match. So instead Kayla took medications to boost her cell counts. The drugs worked for a year and a half, but then they began to impact her kidneys, ultimately forcing Kayla to stop taking the medications. Eight months later, her blood cell counts began to drop again. Kayla needed a bone marrow transplant. » Continue Reading

Fighting neuroblastomas by blocking their DNA replication, repair

April 17, 2014 | by   

Neuroblastoma is one of the deadliest childhood cancers, accounting for 15 percent of pediatric cancer deaths. For patients with high-risk neuroblastomas, the five-year survival rate is 40 to 50 percent even with the most rigorous treatments available today.

PCNA, shown above, is a protein essential to DNA repair and replication, and City of Hope researchers are targeting this protein in neuroblastoma cells to halt its growth and induce its death. (Image credit: Wikimedia commons / Opabinia regalis )

PCNA, shown above, is a protein essential to DNA repair and replication, and City of Hope researchers are targeting it in neuroblastoma cells in order to halt tumor growth and induce cell death. (Image credit: Wikimedia commons / Opabinia regalis )

But those odds may improve soon, thanks to a new compound developed by City of Hope scientists. The compound — a peptide called R9-caPep — works by targeting and disrupting proliferating cell nuclear antigens (PCNA), proteins that are essential in DNA synthesis, replication and repair.

The findings were published in PLoS ONE on April 11.

“We have previously reported identifying a subset of PCNAs that are expressed only in cancer cells,” said Long Gu, Ph.D., assistant research professor in City of Hope’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and first author of the paper. “So we wanted to see if it’s possible to single out and inhibit these cancer-associated PCNAs with this peptide, which would mean it’s possible to deliver targeted therapy to malignant cells while leaving normal tissues unharmed.”

In the study, Gu and his colleagues built R9-caPep to correspond to cancer-associated PCNAs. They then applied it to several neuroblastoma cell cultures. In their observations, they noted that R9-caPep successfully blocked PCNA actions in neuroblastoma cells with much less toxicity in noncancerous cells. » Continue Reading

Blood test could help identify breast cancer recurrences sooner

April 15, 2014 | by   

For breast cancer survivors, a common worry is a recurrence of their cancer. Currently, these patients are screened with regular mammograms, but there’s no way to tell who is more likely to have a recurrence and who is fully cleared of her cancer.

Breast tumor

A new blood test could detect a cancer recurrence in breast cancer survivors significantly sooner than traditional screening alone.

A new blood test – reported in Cancer Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research – could potentially provide doctors and patients with the information they need to determine whose cancer has been eliminated and who needs more aggressive treatment.

The new blood-based assay is built on a panel of 10 breast cancer-specific genes. Blood collected from breast cancer patients is processed to isolate circulating tumor DNA. The test detects if any of the 10 genes are “hypermethylated.”

Hypermethylated genes indicate that the process used by some genes to keep cancers in check has been “silenced.” Thus, the presence of such genes suggests that the patient may have a disease recurrence and that further treatment is warranted. » Continue Reading

New study identifies microRNA’s role in breast cancer metastasis

April 14, 2014 | by   
City of Hope researchers found that a microRNA called miR-105 helps cancer metastasize by breaking down the building blocks of blood vessels' barriers, allowing the cancer cells to enter the bloodstream.

City of Hope researchers found that a microRNA called miR-105 helps cancer metastasize by breaking down the building blocks of blood vessels’ barriers, allowing the cancer cells to enter the bloodstream. Artwork by Bob Fong

Metastasis — the spreading of cancer cells from a primary tumor site to other parts of the body — generally leads to poorer outcomes for patients, so oncologists and researchers are constantly seeking new ways to detect and thwart this malicious process. Now City of Hope researchers may have identified a substance that contributes to it: microRNAs, particularly one called miR-105 that is secreted by breast cancer cells.

The findings were published in the April 14 issue of Cancer Cell.

“MicroRNAs were discovered over two decades ago, but it’s only recently that the scientific community started looking into their role in cancer,” said S. Emily Wang, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Cancer Biology and senior author of the study. “When we found out that cancer cells can make and secrete microRNAs, we wanted to investigate their role in interactions between cancer cells and normal tissue.”

MicroRNAs are small snippets of genetic code that regulate gene expression. This, in turn, alters the quantity and quality of proteins that are manufactured by those genes. In this particular study, Wang and her team found that miR-105 helps breast cancer metastasize by interacting with the gene TJP1. This gene is responsible for producing a protein, ZO-1, used in the boundaries between blood vessel cells.

These boundaries, called tight junctions, are normally impermeable to most substances, including cancer cells. miR-105′s interference leads to the degradation of ZO-1, which makes the junction leaky and allows cancer cells to break free from the primary tumor and enter the bloodstream.

miR-105′s ability to break down tight junctions also helps breast cancer cells invade other organs, including the brain. There, miR-105 leads to the degradation of the blood-brain barrier, which also uses ZO-1. » Continue Reading

Cancer urban legends: True or not true? Ask the experts (w/ VIDEO)

April 14, 2014 | by   

Deodorant, plastic bottles, grilled foods, artificial sweeteners, soy products … Do any of these products really cause cancer?

With so many cancer myths and urban legends out there, why not ask the experts? They can debunk cancer myths while sharing cancer facts that matter, such as risk factors, prevention and the research underway at City of Hope.

Join us on April 19 in Lancaster, Calif., to hear from Nimit Sudan, M.D., assistant clinical professor of medical oncology, and Vijay Trisal, M.D., medical director of City of Hope’s community practices and an associate clinical professor of surgical oncology.

Or join us on April 23 in Duarte to hear from physicians and researchers together. Moderator Linda H. Malkas, Ph.D., deputy director of basic research and a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, will lead the discussion. The featured speakers are, in addition to Trisal:  James Waisman, M.D., clinical professor in the Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research; James Lacey, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Population Sciences; Joseph Alvarnas, M.D., director of medical quality and associate clinical professor in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation; and Sofia Wang, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Population Sciences.

Seats are limited to both events, so reserve your seat today by signing up now for the April 19 program in Lancaster or the April 23 program in Duarte. You can also watch both programs live on our YouTube channel. Have a question for our panel? Let us know in the comments.

Cancers by ethnic group: Numbers tell just part of the story

April 13, 2014 | by   

Cancer risk varies by ethnicity, as does the risk of cancer-related death. But the size of those differences can be surprising, highlighting the health disparities that exist among various ethnic groups in the United States.


Both cancer incidence and death rates for men are highest among African-Americans, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among women, incidence rates are highest among whites, but death rates are highest among African-Americans.

“The causes of cancer health disparities are complex, with root causes stemming from genetic susceptibility, stress and immune function, and family history, as well as health care system factors including preventive care access and utilization, quality care, and diagnostic and therapeutic care delay,” said Kimlin Tam Ashing, Ph.D., director of the Center of Community Alliance for Research & Education (CCARE) at City of Hope.

The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2014 reports that African-Americans and American Indians tend to have more aggressive cancers, more treatment-resistant cancers and lower five-year survival than the general population. » Continue Reading

Musician George Winston has new goal: Say ‘thank you’ in German

April 11, 2014 | by   

George Winston, known worldwide for his impressionistic, genre-defying music, considers music to be his first language, and admits he often stumbles over words – especially when he attempts languages other than English.

George Winston, shown here with Los Angeles Dodger ___ at the 2013 Celebration of Life bone marrow transplant reunion, will meet his donor at this year's event on May 9.

George Winston, shown here with Los Angeles Dodger Tim Leary at the 2013 Celebration of Life bone marrow transplant reunion, will meet his donor at this year’s event on May 9.

There’s one German phrase he’s determined to perfect, however: danke schön.

Winston thinks he’ll have it mastered by his first face-to-face meeting with the 20-year-old German woman who donated the bone marrow that saved his life. The two will meet at City of Hope’s Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion, officially called a Celebration of Life, on May 9.

The annual event celebrates the recipients of bone marrow, stem cell and cord blood transplants, and the donors who made the lifesaving procedures possible. It draws thousands of transplant recipients back to City of Hope. As a world leader in hematopoietic cell transplants, City of Hope has conducted almost 12,000 of the procedures.

Wilson’s excitement is almost palpable. So far, he knows only a few things about his donor – she’s a young woman, she’s from Germany, and she saved his life. » Continue Reading

Healthcare Decisions Day: ‘Advance directive’ is how you say ‘my way’

April 11, 2014 | by   

Few decisions are more important than those involving health care, and few decisions can have such lasting impact, not only on oneself but on relatives and loved ones.

advance directives for health care

Advance directives for health care let you make your wishes known, while you’re able to do so. If you haven’t done so already, National Healthcare Decisions Day is the perfect time to do it.

Those choices, especially, should be made in advance – carefully, deliberately, free of pain and stress, and with much weighing of values and priorities. That’s the purpose of National Healthcare Decisions Day, to help people make those decisions while they’re still able to do so and then to make their wishes, or directives, known.

The alternative is, ultimately, to force distraught loved ones and well-meaning health care workers to guess at what the incapacitated you would have wanted. They don’t always get it right.

So on Wednesday, April 16, observe National Healthcare Decisions Day by assessing your values, deciding on the kind of care that you want and choosing your own way. That means creating your own advance care directives. » Continue Reading

Talking about advance directives needn’t be hard. Make it a game

April 10, 2014 | by   

Using a card game to make decisions about health care, especially as those decisions relate to the end of life, would seem to be a poor idea. It isn’t.

advance directives

The GoWish Game can help family members talk about what’s important to them at the end of life.

The GoWish Game makes those overwhelming, but all-important decisions not just easy, but natural. On each card of the 36-card deck is listed what seriously ill, even dying, people often say are most important to them.

Some samples:

  • To have my family prepared for my death
  • To remember personal accomplishments
  • To say goodbye to important people in my life
  • To maintain my dignity
  • To have my family with me
  • To know how my body will change
  • To prevent arguments by making sure my family knows what I want
  • To pray
  • To die at home
  • To not be connected to machines
  • To be mentally aware

Dawn Gross, M.D., Ph.D., the Arthur M. Coppola Family Chair in Supportive Care Medicine at City of Hope, is a fan of the game and, more specifically, the conversations it creates among family members. » Continue Reading

College student with lymphoma advises: Don’t let cancer define you

April 9, 2014 | by   

Young adults and adolescents with cancer face unique challenges both during their treatment and afterward. Not only are therapies for children and older adults not always appropriate for them, they also must come to terms with the disease and treatment’s impact on their relationships, finances, school or career, and fertility.

All of these challenges point to the need for more research to improve care and follow-up for this age group. Here, one of those patients –  20-year-old Monica Curiel – shares her experience with lymphoma and also her advice for others in her position.


By Monica Curiel

Monica Curiel strikes a pose with actress Anna Kendrick at a recent Lipstick Angels beauty event for patients at City of Hope. Activities like this that are dedicated to boosting confidence and feeling beautiful again are important for young female cancer survivors.

Lymphoma patient Monica Curiel,  20, right, strikes a pose with actress Anna Kendrick at a recent Lipstick Angels beauty event for patients at City of Hope. Photo credit: City of Hope

My story began April 10, 2013. I was diagnosed with lymphoma (stage 2) cancer on that day. The cancer was found after I blacked out in a car accident while driving on the highway.

At first, the doctors could not figure out if I had an infection or if it was cancer. I spent weeks in and out of hospital visits, trying to figure out a diagnosis. After many pokes from needles, biopsies and consultations from teams of oncologists, physicians and various types of specialists, it was concluded I had cancer.

At first, I really did not believe it. I was a 19-year-old freshman at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles.  Having grown up in a rural town on the outskirts of Dallas, I was far from home. I was trying to pursue a career and establish friendships, essentially beginning a new chapter in my life, like millions of other 19-year-olds do at this point in their lives.

As the doctors began to explain my type of cancer and the stages, the next steps and treatments, my first thought was: “This is a mistake, other people get cancer, not me…. I am not strong enough for this; strong people can take on the disease. I am too young, I have so much to learn before I can fight cancer, so much to do.”  » Continue Reading