More Children will be Cured
Reuben Kapur, Ph.D., can envision a day when cancer care for kids looks very different.
In this future, every patient will have their tumor analyzed, and doctors will swiftly identify the genetic mistake, or mutation, that is causing cells to go haywire. Best of all, they will know the precise therapy to fix each cancer-causing culprit.
“Precision medicine is the way of the future,” Dr. Kapur says with excitement. “As we learn more about what these mutations do, and as we are able to target them and fix them, more children will be cured.”
Dr. Kapur is doing much more than simply dreaming about that possibility. He is helping deliver on that promise as a pediatric cancer researcher and interim director of the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research, the laboratory research program affiliated with Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.
It’s a role he’s been working toward his whole life.
BORN INTO SCIENCE
Dr. Kapur’s journey to the lab was somewhat predestined.
He was born in California in the late 1960s while his father was completing a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. The elder P.C. Kapur is a metallurgical engineer and, after a time at the University of Colorado, moved the family back to his native India.
There, he developed a new, inexpensive form of cement made from the remnants of rice husks, helping make construction possible in some of the poorest regions of the world. Later, he invented a water filter that cost as little as $1. It continues to be used to provide clean drinking water in developing countries.
A young Reuben had a front-row seat to his father’s career and marveled at the impact science could have on people’s lives. “I have some very big shoes to fill,” he laughs. (His dad’s work is so influential that he was inducted into the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and Engineers – the Hall of Fame for scientists.)
Inspired to forge a scientific path of his own, Dr. Kapur went off to Christ Church College in India, where he majored in physics, chemistry and math. But a summer biology program piqued his interest in the life sciences, and he decided to change course. After completing his first undergraduate degree, he enrolled at Washington State University for a second bachelor’s in microbiology and immunology.
His march into medical research had begun. He rounded out his training with a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, then arrived at Indiana University School of Medicine in 1994 as a Howard Hughes Postdoctoral Fellow. He joined the Wells Center in 1999.
More than two decades later, there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.
ELIMINATING THE GUESSWORK
At the Wells Center, Dr. Kapur studies leukemia – the most common childhood cancer – as well as other types of blood cancers. Most recently, he has made promising discoveries related to a condition called juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia, or JMML.
JMML accounts for just 1 to 2 percent of all pediatric blood cancers. Most cases of JMML are diagnosed in children under the age of 4, and the cancer can progress quickly. The most common treatment is a stem cell transplant, but the cancer recurs in about half of all cases. When it does, the prognosis is not good.
Dr. Kapur is working to change the outlook.
Thanks to new technologies that allow scientists to decode the human genome, we now know that JMML is linked to mutations on a handful of specific genes, with errors on two being most common. Dr. Kapur and his laboratory team have found that an existing FDA-approved drug, typically used to treat adult leukemia, appears to fix the biological consequences of these mistakes.
The therapy has not yet been tested in patients, but Dr. Kapur said the laboratory results are “very convincing.” “We may be able to cure this rare disease,” he said. “We’re incredibly excited about that.”
Dr. Kapur sees hope for other types of pediatric cancer by applying the same technology-aided approach.
“Twenty years ago, a lot of what we did was guess work,” he said. “We still do a lot of guessing, but the advent of whole genome sequencing, precision medicine and targeted therapies is really allowing us to treat diseases that we could not treat before.”
DRIVEN BY DONORS
Technology is only one ingredient crucial for success. The other is philanthropy.
Children’s cancers are often overlooked by pharmaceutical companies, which don’t see enough return on investment to spend heavily on research related to the diseases. That leaves it up to a handful of elite children’s hospitals and their academic partners – including Riley Hospital for Children and the Wells Center – to carry the torch.
But resources are scarce. Only about 4 percent of federal dollars for cancer research are dedicated to childhood cancers.
Kapur is grateful to receive support for his research from Riley Children’s Foundation and its generous donors. Among his many other titles, Dr. Kapur is the Frieda and Albrecht Kipp Professor of Pediatrics. The title is accompanied by an endowed fund that annually generates income to support his research.
The fund was established with proceeds from an estate gift and will remain in place for all time, ensuring the Kipp name lives on at Riley. Along with donations from other donors, it also guarantees Dr. Kapur can keep pressing ahead to make his dream for the future of cancer care a reality.
“A lot of pediatric cancers are still under-explored and not well understood,” he says. “There’s so much we can learn.”
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