UAMS Scientist Gets $500,000 from New Myeloma Research Fund

By todd

LITTLE ROCK — A gene researcher at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), where researchers have achieved a survival rate for the rare and deadly cancer multiple myeloma that is twice the overall average, is among the first recipients of the Fund to Cure Myeloma.

An anonymous benefactor has established the fund and appointed some of the world’s leading experts in multiple myeloma research to decide how to distribute the monies over the next five years. The gift of $500,000 to UAMS is one of the first the fund has made.

Although the median survival rate for myeloma patients in the United States is roughly 2.5 to three years, researchers at UAMS have achieved a median survival rate of six to seven years, attracting so many patients that UAMS has become the largest myeloma treatment and research center in the world.

John Shaughnessy, Jr., Ph.D., at UAMS will use the grant from the Fund to Cure Myeloma in his work to identify genetic “profiles” for different variations of the cancer. Shaughnessy is director of the Donna D. and Donald M. Lambert Laboratory of Myeloma Genetics at UAMS’s Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy.

The news magazine “U.S. News and World Report” singled Shaughnessy out earlier this year for his innovative genetic research, noting that he “has already begun to make sense of the genetic chaos of multiple myeloma.”

Shaughnessy and other researchers at UAMS are focusing on two issues: why some persons with multiple myeloma live so much longer than others, and why the disease almost always causes the patient’s bones to literally disintegrate.

Looking for clues about the causes of multiple myeloma has been like “walking around in a dark room with a pin light,” Shaughnessy says. Now with gene expression microarray technology, “we are using a floodlight.” Scientists use microarray technology to determine which of the estimated 35,000 human genes are “turned on” or turned off” in cancer cells.

The variability in myeloma survival “is vast, with some patients succumbing within months while others can live for a decade,” Shaughnessy says. Currently only 20 percent of this variability can be explained. The hope is that scientists can link distinct “profiles” of “on,” or expressed, genes to variation in myeloma patient outcomes. The profiles will help physicians match treatments to individual patients, for so-called “personalized medicine.” Physicians could choose to use experimental treatments for patients whose profiles suggest that they will not live long on conventional therapy, according to Shaughnessy.

A type of cancer that affects plasma cells, multiple myeloma typically affects middle-aged or elderly persons. Approximately 15,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. There is no known cure for the disease, although lengthy remissions can often be achieved. The immediate goal in treating multiple myeloma is to get the disease under control and to keep the patient in remission with a good quality of life for as long as possible. Disease control can be complicated by a tendency for myeloma cells to become resistant to chemotherapeutic agents. By comparing the “profiles” of cells at diagnosis and at relapse, Shaughnessy is also attempting to identify molecular mechanisms of drug resistance.

UAMS is Arkansas’s leading institution for health-related research, with established groups of scientists in most major fields of interest to the National Institutes of Health. Several research groups at UAMS, in addition to scientists in the Lambert Laboratory, are conducting studies in genomics, the discipline that identifies genes, their interactions, and their effects on biological processes, such as the progress of different cancers.