Research Update: Dr. Bang Hoang was our recipient of our 1st $100,000 Sarcoma Strong research grant in 2017. We followed up with Dr. Hoang to see the fruits of his labor and why funding research can offer so much hope to those dealing with sarcoma.
How has the research grant from Sarcoma Strong helped to advance your research?
When we got the research grant from Sarcoma Strong, we were really excited because it was the first grant of its kind that was offered. We focused on osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that affects young children and has devastating consequences. Our goal was to understand how a drug or agent worked at a molecular level and how it affected different types of cells. The funding from Sarcoma Strong helped us to buy reagents and have an animal model for our experiments. We found some very important results and were able to publish a paper. To advance this project further, we are applying to a bigger grant from the National Cancer Institute or the NIH.
What research studies have you performed over the last few years?
We used a mouse model where we injected human sarcoma cells into the tibia of a mouse that then formed a tumor. That tumor then spread to other parts of the body, mainly to the lungs which kills the mouse. We found that blocking a certain signaling pathway called the Skp2 pathway reduces the incidence of the tumor spreading to the lungs and reduces the size and growth rate of the tumor. So, we identified a susceptible genetic pathway to attack the tumor.
What new questions remain unanswered in that research? How close are we to eventually applying this to humans?
In research, it is very common to answer one question, and then immediately have that answer lead to more questions. Now that we have found that this pathway is potentially important in one model, we need to validate it in other models. Not only that, we have to move to other models that closely mimic the human disease. In our mouse model, we injected the human tumor into the tibia. The problem with that model is that the mouse is genetically immunodeficient, similar to how people with HIV are immunodeficient. We had to do that because a normal immunocompetent mouse would not accept the tumor.
Another model involves changing the genetics of the mouse before birth causing the mouse to spontaneously develop osteosarcoma. This mimics the human disease better because the mouse has a normal immune system. We want to test the same drug on this genetic mouse model. We also want to explore more drugs to find one that affects the same pathways but has less side effects. To find the perfect drug, we have to screen a number of different compounds.
Were there any other areas of sarcoma that this grant helped fund?
We used the grant to study osteosarcoma, but it turns out that this pathway or genetic signaling is also common in other types of sarcoma such as synovial sarcoma, another deadly cancer affecting children. Approximately 50% of patients who develop synovial sarcoma eventually pass away. It turns out that synovial sarcoma uses this same genetic defect, and when we treat synovial sarcoma cells with the same drug, we see that the drug slows down their growth rate significantly. Our initial funding from the grant helped us find this important pathway which just happened to be important in other types of pediatric sarcoma.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your research progress and goals?
The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed us down slightly because of the closure of some of the facilities at the Albert Einstein. We have to scale down the research in our lab, but it gives us the opportunity to focus on writing papers, writing grants, having meetings online so that we can discuss how to move forward. In some sense, this helps us to refocus and be more effective with our time.
Why are you interested in orthopedic oncology and sarcoma?
When I was an orthopedic resident, I was interested in many different areas of orthopedic surgery such as spine and hand surgery. When I rotated through the oncology service, it initially seemed chaotic. The types of surgeries were very unorthodox and challenging, and that has sort of drawn me to the field. On top of that, we care for patients with cancers that are very serious, so we can potentially make a very big impact on their lives. Finally, there are a lot of questions in cancer that have not been answered, so there is a lot of room for research and innovation.
Will you be participating in this year’s Virtual Sarcoma Strong 5k Run/Walk?
I’m working with our group here to see if we can do that. With what New York City has just gone through with COVID-19, everybody is just trying to recover and everything has slowed down. In fact, we unfortunately had to cancel our own sarcoma run. For the past two years, our sarcoma run has raised money, some of which was sent to Sarcoma Strong to participate in that effort. We were one of the first institutions that participated in Sarcoma Strong, and as our fundraising becomes more robust, we can contribute even more.
Why should people donate to Sarcoma Strong?
That’s a good question. People have many causes that they want to donate to. Sarcoma is not a disease that affects a lot of people so not many people know about it unless someone in their family is affected by it. Sarcoma affects all age groups, particularly young children, adolescents, and young adults. It’s difficult for them because it usually happens at a time when they are most vulnerable. I think that sarcoma is an important issue because number one, it is fairly rare so we do not have a lot of funding from the federal government. That left us with nothing and these patients were continuing to pass away, have their limbs cut off or mangled, or have a big surgery and chemotherapy. At the end of the day, even a small amount of money can help. When Sarcoma Strong was first started, we didn’t raise much money, but now with the efforts of many different institutions, perhaps one day we can move multiple different research projects forward. That would serve as a springboard for people to get bigger grants, and the whole field would move forward faster.
Any last comments?
Overall, I was very fortunate to have found Sarcoma Strong and Dr. DiCaprio. I think that the more people know about sarcoma and the more we publicize this; the more people will want to support it. Cancer is always very difficult for the children but also for the parents. Second thing is that there is not a whole lot of money or support to do sarcoma research. When I applied to this grant, it was the only grant of its kind that was available. I wish that in the future, we will have more money so that there are multiple grants that more people would have access to.
Written by Gokul Kalyanasundaram from interview with Dr. Hoang 7.8.2020