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Audio Interview With Chris Park

Roger Royse Interview with Chris Park

Roger This is Roger Royse, candidate for 2012 Leukemia Lymphoma Society Man of the Year San Francisco and I am talking to Chris Park who is a researcher and is one of the people that benefits from the funding raised by organizations such as LLS to conduct research into new therapies. Chris, good evening and thanks for talking to me tonight.
Chris My pleasure Roger.
Roger Chris, by way of introduction, could you say a few words about who you are and what kind of work youíre doing?
Chris Absolutely! Basically I am a researcher. I am a commissioned scientist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. Iím trained actually as a hematopathologist with a specialty in blood cancer, so Iím called the head of pathologists. I actually trained at Stanford for my residency and then my post graduate studies there. When I was a fellow I developed an interest in a fairly new area of research and leukemia which was this idea of taking a stem cell, so the idea of a leukemia stem cell and this is some pioneering work that was done by a researcher up in Canada named John Dick. He sort of revolutionized the field because what he showed was there is a specific group of cells in leukemia that are probably really the responsible cells for the resistance that we see at treatments. What he did that really kind of changed the paradigm for research was that he can show that you can purify these cells from a leukemia when a patient presents. So instead of studying all of the cells you could study the stem cells specifically and so as a post doctoral research and now in my laboratory here in New York weíre studying this population of cells within the leukemias. The idea being that in the past the research that has really focused on all of the cells has probably not given us all of the information we need about the cells we really need to target within the leukemia. There are a number of researchers around the world who are studying the molecular mechanisms that regulate these stem cells within leukemia and our hope is that if we can better understand how they're regulated then we will be able to develop better therapies.
Roger Taking a step back, it might be helpful if you could give us a little bit of background of what leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma are and what is the exact problem that causes these diseases.
Chris Sure, well. Blood sensors are really divided into different categories based on the type within the blood system that actually turns into the cancer. Myelomas are diseases when you have too many plasma cells. So plasma cells are normally the immune cells and a body has to make antibodies but sometimes these cells can form a tumor. So that is myeloma. Then you have lymphomas which are cancers of lymphocytes which are normally are immune cells that are really responsible for immunity against things like viruses, also required for you to have normal immune responses so that you can have vaccinations work properly. Then the leukemias can be cancers of immature cells in the blood system or mature cells but usually they're characterized by the fact that these cells circulate in the blood and they also overwhelm the bone marrow which is the site of normal blood cell development. So in contrast to lymphomas, which generally involve five of those bone marrow and lymph nodes. Leukemia can actually involve the blood and those are the major categories of blood cancers. There are some other sub-categories. Another sub-category which my laboratory works on is also called myelodysplastic syndromes. In contrast to all of these other blood cancers, instead of being a disease where you have too many cells of a particular type you actually have too few cells. In other words, the blood system cannot develop the mature parts of it normally so usually this means that people cannot make too many red cells or they canít make enough platelets and so people have problems along those lines. Those are the basic types of blood cancers.
Roger Can you tell me a little bit about the research and the therapies that are being developed now? The question that Iím coming around to is how close are we to having a cure to leukemia as well as other cancers?
Chris Well that is a tough one. I think there are a lot of very compelling and intriguing stories that are being developed out there. Probably in the last decade or so most of the research efforts have been really directed towards inhibiting a class of enzymes called kinases. Kinases are generally very important proteins within the cell because what they do is they transmit signals from the outside of the cell to the inside. What usually happens or what stops happening in most blood cancers is that these kinases get activated abnormally. Sometimes typically through a mutation. So the idea is if you can shut that kinase off and you can sort of shut down the signals that the cell thinks itís receiving from the outside. But what weíve learned is from clinical experience where people have been able to effectively inhibit these kinases. They find that while they can control disease you really donít cure. A number of groups have really shown quite nicely that these treatments even though they can symptomatically improve what the patient is experiencing really donít target the stem cells or the cancer stem cells within each of these different blood cancers. So that is what the idea of really understanding what regulates the stem cells in these cancers, that is why it becomes so important.
Roger I see. How important is funding in this process and can you tell me where your sources of funding for the Park Center come from?
Chris Sure. My research funding comes from philanthropic sources here in New York through the hospital. It comes through a private foundation such as the LLS. Actually currently I donít have an LLS grant although I am in the process of applying for one and hopeful that I might be able to get some funding. Then you have federal sources such as the NIH, the Department of Defense in my case and those are probably the major sources of funding. I think the reason why the LLS is so important is that weíre really at a very important time in history of funding for biomedical research where historically because of the budget crisis funding in the United States for scientific research has really actually gone down over the last several years. For younger investigators in particular they're at risk of not being able to use the monies through grants that they really need in order to be able to pursue the research. This doesnít only affect younger investigators, it actually affects all investigators. Lets say 15 years ago if you applied to NIH lets say 20-25% of the grants would actually get funded. Now its 8 or 6% so there is a general fear that there is a lack of understanding on the part of the public of the biomedical research. This seems not to be the political role to make sure there is continued funding. That is why foundations like the LLS are so important because it really gives another source of funding for researchers and of course the quality of the science that is funded by the LLS are of the highest quality since they're peer review processors, impeccable and very similar to actually what goes on at the NIH.
Roger Is there anything that youíd like to add or tell our audience as we head into the first week of our 10 week campaign to raise money to fund research of new cancer therapies?
Chris I think really it comes down to just how much passion there is by folks like yourself Roger as well as the people who give to LLS on a regular basis. As an observer of team and training and other programs that the LLS has sponsored have always been surprised at some level of just how much people are willing to do in order to support research for blood diseases. As I said, this is a very important time. I think there is a lot of momentum that weíve been developing over the last several years.

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