Caring Drug Developers and Engineers Are Working Together to Give Hope to Kids with Cancer

“This is a grass-roots cause where a few people who care a lot about a rare condition come together because they’re driven by the mission,” said Charles Keller, scientific director and founder of Children’s Cancer Therapy Development Institute (cc-TDI).

Photo: YouTube/American Cancer Society

Founded in 2015, cc-TDI’s mission is to save more young people with cancer whom many drug companies do not consider a worthy market.

“How on Earth are you going to make money treating 300 kids a year with rhabdomyosarcoma?” asked Keller. This is a matter which has long frustrated him and other compassionate people.

Around the globe, almost half a million children and teenagers develop different types of cancer every year. In the United States, about 1,800 young people die from cancer yearly, more than any other disease.

Photo: YouTube/American Cancer Society

Nevertheless, The Food and Drug Administration has approved fewer than a dozen drugs for childhood cancers — a dismal figure compared to the number of approved drugs for adults with the same disease.

But Keller, a physician-researcher with a background in biomedical engineering, is determined to help out young people whose lives are being degraded and cut off by cancer. He has partnered with biotech and pharmaceutical companies to vigorously push for the clinical testing of experimental therapies.

So far, they have been successful with a couple of drugs that included a possible treatment for a lethal brain tumor called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma. It is now undergoing nationwide phase I trials.

Photo: YouTube/American Cancer Society

Now cc-TDI has a team of biologists and engineers working hand in hand to analyze drug-testing results alongside DNA- and RNA-sequencing data of tumors, which results in massive information. The engineers help the biologists in understanding all the data, while the biologists help the engineers understand intriguing data aspects.

Noah Berlow, Ph.D., an electrical engineer at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, joined Keller’s cc-TDI because of their shared beliefs. He uses applied maths and artificial intelligence to find cancer therapies.

Samuel Rasmussen, a mechanical engineer, became a part of the team as well. It was he who designed the device they now use in a newly-invented drug-testing method: the quail egg assay.

After finding a way to crack a quail’s egg without breaking its yolk, they can already place drug-treated tumor cells onto the quail embryos that are grown in lab dishes. It provides them with a fast and inexpensive means to screen cancer drugs on living tissue.

Photo: YouTube/American Cancer Society

According to Keller, information from an “11-day quail-egg assay, which uses up to 200 eggs per screening at around 35 cents an egg, agreed with mouse data.” This suggested that the quail-egg system could be utilized to reliably choose candidates for testing in mice studies.

“I think the quail-egg system is a great opportunity,” remarked Maya Ridinger, a biologist at Cardiff Oncology, a biotech firm located in San Diego, California.

Some of cc-TDI’s members are individuals who have lost kids to cancer, and they have dedicated themselves to the cause.

Aside from the medical activities, cc-TDI also hosts summer “nano courses” every year, crash courses in the basics of childhood cancers, development of drugs, and clinical trials. The objective is to train individuals in coordinating between the community and cancer researchers.

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