The Future of Steele: Researchers Advance on Pediatric Cancer, Disease

By Loni Nannini

At Steele Children’s Research Center, a cadre of talented researchers, physicians and community partners are paving the road to reinvent—and revitalize—the wheels of research. 

“We have numerous scientific collaborations between faculty from different divisions, departments and colleges within the University of Arizona and with other universities across the country and in Europe,” said Pawel Kiela, associate director for basic science research at Steele Children’s Research Center.

“Collaborations within the community are also essential to us: The philanthropic support we have received over the years from organizations, businesses and individuals has enabled us to build a research infrastructure with the spaces, equipment and tools that scientists and clinicians need to succeed. These form the spokes of the wheel now and in the future.”

Kiela, also a PANDA Endowed Professor in Autoimmune Disease Research at Steele.  is among the emerging leaders devoted to framing research in the context of human disease. 

“To use a common colloquialism, we strive to ‘see the forest through the trees,’—i.e., to apply advanced molecular techniques to foster our knowledge of the disease,” said Kiela. 

A Multi-Systems Approach 

Steele scientists often start from the top down, working from the clinical bedside to the bench in hopes of eventually returning research results and diagnostics to the bedside.

Ultimately, Kiela and his colleagues strive to understand not only the basic fundamentals of individual processes of diseases, but also the integration of multiple organs in those processes. 

This multi-systems approach is effective in every area of research, including autoimmune diseases and autoinflammatory diseases—and the evolving definitions of both. This focus area plays a key role in the post-pandemic world and in the future of Steele. 

“We used to think that in developed countries, fewer infectious diseases correlated with increased rates of autoimmune disorders,” he said. “The pandemic upended this notion in some respect. We increasingly understand that with some infectious diseases often come dysregulated immune responses that target one’s own tissues in a nondiscriminatory way. Even an infection such as coronavirus can have an autoinflammatory component and there is emerging evidence that some autoimmune diseases may arise as complication to infection.”

Kiela is doing his part to investigate: His latest research explores the role of the gut microbiota in regulating the immune responses that can adversely affect the brain in children with post-infectious autoimmune encephalopathy. His other work continues to revolve around aspects of chronic intestinal inflammation, including inflammatory bowel disease and IBD-associated changes in the gut-bone axis in relation to osteopenia and osteoporosis in children and adults. 

Cutting-Edge Cancer Research, Therapies 

Additional groundbreaking research is in the works by Dr. Emmanuel Katsanis, chief of the Tucson-Phoenix Integrated Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and director of the Banner University Medical Center /UArizona Cancer Center Hematopoietic Cellular Therapy and Transplant Program.

Katsanis has garnered a national reputation for the pediatric haploidentical—or “half-matched” bone marrow transplantation program at Banner. With survival rates greater than 80% and equivalent to those of matched sibling transplants, Katsanis and his team put Steele on the map for research in haplo-BMTs. His research group had previously pioneered the development of a cancer cell vaccine. 

Most recently, Katsanis and Steele researcher Richard Simpson were awarded a $3 million-plus grant by the National Institutes of Health for their work on the effect of exercise on hematologic cancers, primarily leukemias in children.

“We are studying the effects of exercise on the human immune system, which includes different lymphocyte subsets such as NK and T-cells which can kill leukemia after bone marrow transplantation. We are trying to understand what exercise does to make these cells more effective against human leukemia,” said Katsanis. 

Looking ahead, he is optimistic that continued recruitment will further expand research and development of therapies for pediatric cancer at Steele. 

“With more researchers to collaborate, we can move science forward to better the lives of kids,” said Katsanis. 

A Pipeline for Future Pediatricians, Researchers

Recruitment is also a priority for Dr. Sydney Rice, a professor in UArizona’s Department of Pediatrics.

Rice, one of three developmental behavioral pediatricians at Steele, is building a pipeline from high schools, colleges, medical schools and residency programs to a Pediatric Developmental Behavioral Fellowship. Steele also boasts three developmental behavioral nurse practitioners. 

Training of future professionals in this field is key to identification and intervention for autism and other behavioral disorders, developmental disabilities and mental health issues. 

Rice described developmental behavioral pediatricians as “interpreters of how children are thinking.” They can utilize genetic testing, cognitive testing and behavioral assessments to help families and children understand and manage these conditions. 

“Almost every biological condition that children are treated for at Steele has a developmental behavioral pediatric component to it,” she said. “There is a great need for more of us and that need will continue to grow in the future.”

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