The seeds were planted when Ranjan J. Perera, Ph.D., first met George Jallo, M.D., at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2018.
When Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital officials were recruiting Perera and some of his basic science colleagues to join the organization, Perera hit it off immediately with Jallo at that first meeting.
"I was convinced that Dr. Jallo is someone who is enthusiastic, passionate and a strong believer in basic research. He is someone I can count on to pursue the academic mission at Johns Hopkins All Children’s," Perera says.
After Perera and other scientists joined Johns Hopkins All Children's in 2018 to expand the hospital's academic research enterprise to include basic science, Perera began talking with Jallo, a neurosurgeon who now is the vice dean and physician in chief, and Stacie Stapleton, M.D., a neuro-oncologist, about what problems they could work on together.
The conversation evolved to the difficulty of distinguishing between two forms of medulloblastoma, one of the most common types of brain tumors in children, according to the American Cancer Society. The two forms look identical under a microscope, but one is fast growing and aggressive and has limited or no cure, while the other is less aggressive. Perera and his team worked on the problem and discovered that they could identify novel molecular markers to distinguish between the two forms by using cerebrospinal fluid in sick children.
In a separate study, Perera and his team discovered a cancer-forming novel RNA molecule that could be used as a therapeutic target to treat medulloblastoma in children. They are now ready to embark on the next research phase seeking ways to destroy this molecule in the brain. Recently, Perera was awarded a five-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant for slightly over $2 million to study the problem.
It is the first Research Project grant — known as an R01 — Johns Hopkins All Children's has received to study pediatric cancer research.
R01 NIH grants are highly sought after. Only 10% of R01 grant applications are funded. It takes a great deal of advance work to receive one.
This project started with funding from the Johns Hopkins All Children's Foundation. Ian's Friends Foundation made the initial contribution, producing promising early data. Robb and Susan Hough, and the Hough Family Foundation then contributed, helping lead to findings published in the Journal of Neuro-Oncology and Acta Neuropathologica Communications. The donors became familiar with Perera's work through their association with Jallo.
"It is our responsibility to prove that this funding is used well and gets a return on the investment," Perera says. "Donors can actually help to raise more money with their initial donation, which ultimately helps a child suffering from a disease."
Johns Hopkins, All Children's Foundation seeks to build a network of local donors who will fund research. At Johns Hopkins' campuses in Baltimore and at other academic medical institutions in the northeast, donors frequently fund research projects. Until joining Johns Hopkins Medicine in 2011, All Children's had less of a research infrastructure. Local donors are more accustomed to funding buildings or equipment. Ashley Nall, director of the Johns Hopkins All Children's Foundation, hopes to change that.
"The idea is that the research gains traction, and like in Ranjan's case, he's going to get NIH funding," she says. "He would have never gotten to this point without that philanthropy."
How is Research Money Used?
Donors can influence what their philanthropy can be used for, but often it pays for the time of people involved in the project, such as post-doctoral fellows or data analysts. A special piece of equipment may be needed, or commonly used reagents may be purchased. Funding may cover the storage of tissue samples or membership in databases.
Particularly in pediatrics, research often involves multicenter collaboration to aggregate enough cases to draw meaningful conclusions.
Donations help researchers seek discoveries and better understand how the body and its environment work.
"We have new ideas we want to do," Perera says. "We want people to know what kind of academic research we do and how they could get involved and support it."
Collaboration Against Cancer
Perera says that some people wonder why a children's hospital added a group of basic scientists.
Not everyone may be aware of how clinical and translational research can directly impact patients. Clinical research involves patients who volunteer to participate in carefully conducted investigations to seek better ways to treat, prevent, diagnose or understand the disease. Translational basic research takes discoveries made in the lab and seeks to apply them to improve humans' health.
Basic research, also called fundamental research, seeks to understand a subject, phenomenon, or basic law of nature, so it seems less focused on solving specific medical problems. But by working side-by-side, Perera believes basic scientists can better understand the topics clinicians such as Stapleton want to translate into the clinic. The fundamental research into a tumor's biomarkers and how to identify them can lead to a clinical distinction between two similar-looking types of cancer.
One day, clinicians and basic research scientists working under one roof will pave the way to find cures for these often-fatal childhood cancers.
This is the dream of the Perera and Stapleton team.
If you would like to discuss funding research at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, contact Ashley Nall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727-767-2958.