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Dr. Jamie Anastas has always had a passion for cancer research. She was drawn to DIPG because of the devastating nature of the disease and the challenge of finding new therapies. She was awarded a ChadTough Defeat DIPG Fellowship Grant in 2017 and later a New Investigator Grant in 2022. We had the chance to talk with Dr. Anastas about her most recent work at Baylor College of Medicine exploring new drugs that target something called cyclin-dependent kinases, which play an important role in promoting tumor cell growth. Her ongoing work will be a first step toward evaluating whether these drugs might one day be used in the clinic for childhood brain tumor treatment.

CTDDF: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you decided to work in the world of brain cancer research?

Dr. Anastas: I’ve always had a passion for cancer research, first working on breast cancer and melanoma as an undergraduate and during my PhD and then transitioning to brain tumor research with a focus on DIPG during my postdoc.

There were two main things that drew me into the field of pediatric brain cancer research. First, I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge, and DIPG and other pediatric brain tumors are some of the most challenging cancers to treat. The devastating nature of these cancers and the challenge of finding new therapies has been a huge motivator for me and my lab.

As a basic scientist, the second major factor that attracted me to the field of pediatric brain tumor research has been the surprising biology and genetics of these tumors, which are distinct from adult cancers. One aspect of this research that’s particularly exciting to me is the possibility of applying our growing knowledge of the underlying biology of these tumors to design new treatment strategies that are specifically tailored for pediatric brain tumors and their unique molecular features.

CTDDF: Can you tell me about your latest work and what you have learned so far?

Dr. Anastas: Our current work is related to drugs targeting factors called cyclin-dependent kinases that play important roles in promoting tumor cell growth and survival. We are currently evaluating some recently developed drugs that target these cyclin-dependent kinases as potential pediatric brain tumor therapies using mouse models. This ongoing work will be a first step toward evaluating whether these drugs might one day be used in the clinic for pediatric brain tumor treatment.

Since brain tumor cells frequently develop resistance to drug treatments and other therapies, our second major goal is to identify combination therapies for DIPG. We did a drug screen to identify drugs to combine with our cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors with the goal of finding drug pairs that enhance DIPG cell killing and growth inhibition. One of the most interesting findings from this screen is that several drugs traditionally prescribed for other neurological diseases like depression and anxiety seem to enhance the response of our brain tumor cells to cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors. This data is still preliminary, and we are currently working on critical validation studies, but we are cautiously optimistic about developing a strategy where we would repurpose drugs normally used for improving mental health as brain tumor therapies.

CTDDF: As a 2022 ChadTough New Investigator Grant awardee, and a 2017 Fellowship awardee, what do you feel is the importance of private funding in moving the field of DIPG forward? 

Dr. Anastas: Some of the challenges faced by new investigators include a lack of sustaining research funding, limited laboratory personnel, challenges in establishing research methods and procedures in a totally new lab, and fierce competition from more established research groups. All these factors can make it difficult to pursue high-risk, high-reward research projects that are necessary to move the field forward. Foundation support from organizations like ChadTough is essential when just starting out as a new investigator because this support provides that extra cushion necessary to pursue innovative ideas and research directions that might otherwise be too risky.

CTDDF: Is there any specific research happening in the world of childhood brain cancer that you find particularly promising?

Dr. Anastas: Immunotherapy using CAR T-cells and other strategies to target DIPG and other brain tumors is one of the most exciting new directions for the field. Since it may be unrealistic to develop immunotherapies that are 100% effective on their own, another strategy that we are intrigued by is the possibility of using small molecules like the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors and epigenome-targeting drugs to complement or enhance immunotherapies for these brain tumors. We are excited about pursuing this new direction in collaboration with some of the CAR T-cell experts at Baylor College of Medicine and at Texas Children’s Hospital.

ChadTough Defeat DIPG Foundation is proud to have helped foster the exciting work of Dr. Jamie Anastas as she explores cutting-edge drug combinations to combat the growth of childhood brain tumors. We believe Dr. Anastas’ work is paving the way for advancements in the field of childhood brain cancer research and bringing hope to patients and their families facing these devastating diagnoses.