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'Behind the Blue': How UK Researchers are Working to Beat Pediatric Cancer

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 12, 2019) The world of pediatric cancer treatment has seen huge advancements in treatments over the past 60 years – in the 1950s, less than 10 percent of children were cured of their cancer. Today, the number of survivors is nearly 80 percent.

However, that still means that one in five children diagnosed with cancer will not survive. Many childhood cancers can be extremely difficult to treat, and research is key to developing new, better therapies for these diseases.

Ramon Sun, an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, is one researcher embarking on an exciting new project in pediatric cancer – specifically, Ewing Sarcoma, a rare pediatric cancer that often occurs in the bones or the soft tissue surrounding bones and affects children and young adults typically between the ages of 5 and 16. Sun was recently awarded a significant grant to study Ewing Sarcoma from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, the largest private funder of childhood cancer research grants. The award will fund his work at $110,000 a year for up to the next five years.

With this new grant, Sun will specifically investigate the role of aberrant glycogen in patients with Ewing Sarcoma and explore this glycogen as a therapeutic target. Sun sees the award as not just a coveted accolade, but a chance to identify a potential new cure for Ewing Sarcoma ­– there have been no new therapeutic options approved to treat Ewing Sarcoma in the past 20 years, and patients who undergo chemotherapy and radiation for the disease may experience lifelong side effects from their treatment.

The disease is in desperate need of research and development of new therapeutic options, Sun says, and the St. Baldrick’s grant will further that goal by focusing on a specific angle of the disease – the role of aberrant glycogen in cancer development.

“Ewing sarcoma is a devastating disease, where aggressive treatments are met with poor disease outcomes,” Sun said. “One of the key observations of Ewing Sarcoma made back in the 1930s is the accumulation of a large amount of glycogen – these tumors store a large amount of aberrant glycogen, and that accumulation has gone largely unexplored. My research aims to understand the reason behind this glycogen accumulation and exploit the glycogen deposits as a possible drug target for treating Ewing Sarcoma.”

On this week’s episode of "Behind the Blue," UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications' Allison Perry and Kody Kiser sit down with both Sun and UK hematologist/oncologist Dr. John D’Orazio to talk about pediatric cancer in Kentucky, the magic of DanceBlue, future goals for this Ewing Sarcoma project, and why research funding is so important in helping scientists develop newer, better cures for cancer.

"Behind the Blue" is available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and Spotify. Become a subscriber to receive new episodes of “Behind the Blue” each week. UK’s latest medical breakthroughs, research, artists and writers will be featured, along with the most important news impacting the university.

For questions or comments about this or any other episode of "Behind the Blue," email BehindTheBlue@uky.edu or tweet your question with #BehindTheBlue.

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The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion two years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. The Chronicle of Higher Education judged us a “Great College to Work for,”  and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for three straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.