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Grantee Spotlight: Kimberly Payne, Ph.D. - Investigating Leukemia Health Disparities in Hispanic and Native American Children

September 19, 2014, by CRCHD staff

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), cancer of the blood and bone marrow, is the most common childhood malignancy, representing about 25% of cancer diagnoses among children younger than 15 years. Although it is highly treatable when detected early, Hispanic and Native American children experience a significantly higher death rate from the disease. One variation of ALL, a type of B-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (B-ALL), is very high-risk and occurs more frequently in these populations.

Kimberly Payne, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Director of Translational Research at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine in Loma Linda, CA, is funded by an NCI-CRCHD R21 grant to investigate the genetic underpinning for this disparity. B-ALL is a type of leukemia in which white blood cells called “B lymphocytes” (which normally make antibodies to help fight infection) are immature and defective, and the bone marrow makes too many of them. Under the grant, Payne is developing a pre-clinical model to identify the genetic mechanisms for B-ALL so she can develop and evaluate therapies to target those mechanisms, and treat the cancer that occurs at high frequency among Hispanic and Native American children.

“For years we have known that Hispanic children have a higher death rate from acute lymphoblastic leukemia than other population groups, but we did not know why until the identification of its variant form, ‘CRLF-2 B-ALL’ in 2009,’” Payne said.  Payne studies both normal B-cell development and the particular pathway that is altered in this form of leukemia. Once the cancer develops in the white blood cells, it can spread aggressively over the entire body, including the spleen and the brain. CRLF-2 B-ALL is a very high-risk leukemia with more than 50% mortality rate with current treatments, and occurs approximately five times more frequently among children of Hispanic/Latino and Native American birth than other pediatric populations.

This finding is particularly heartbreaking for Payne who says, “Approximately 65% of the patients at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital are from Hispanic or Native American families and are at higher risk for this disease.”

But Payne is committed to finding effective treatments for Hispanic and Native American children with leukemia. She emphasized, “One of the things I’m really passionate about is bringing basic science from the bench to the treatment arena so we can make patients’ lives better as soon as possible.” She continued, “Receiving the CRCHD R21 grant was extremely significant to my research. The grant allowed me to develop a model to identify some gene targets that will be helpful in investigating future drug treatments and testing.” Payne added that she has secured another foundation grant where she can begin testing the new therapies. In the near future, Payne plans to pursue a NCI-U01 grant which will enable her to focus on two particular genes for drug testing.

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