Improving outcomes for African American children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia

Although African American children develop acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) at roughly half the rate of European American children, they suffer from worse forms of the disease and have worse rates of survival. 

Pediatrics faculty member Logan Spector, Ph.D., and laboratory medicine and pathology faculty member Nathan Pankratz, Ph.D., are dedicated to determining why these disparities exist, and believe that to a certain extent the answer lies in genetics. With Masonic support, they are using a process called admixture mapping, a mode of analysis which locates chromosomal segments from different continental ancestries, to pinpoint specific culprits. 

So far, Spector and Pankratz have collected samples from more than 500 African American children with ALL and have made the early discovery that a set of genes called immunoglobulin heavy locus, or IGH, may be involved in worse outcomes. 

“If this result holds up, it makes a lot of sense, since IGH is where B cells break up their genome to create antibodies,” says Spector. “We would guess that the versions of IGH in European genomes are more vulnerable to breaking than in African genomes.” 

The next big steps for Spector and Pankratz will be to expand their work so that they can gain a more precise understanding of the genes that lower one’s risk of developing ALL, but worsen outcomes. They were fortunate to receive a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in August 2020 to support this effort. 

Spector headshot“The Masons' very substantial support of the early phases of this project was absolutely essential to convincing the NIH to give us the major funding to fully investigate our hypotheses." 
—Logan Spector

Pankratz headshot“My lab focuses on developing software to automate best practices for analyzing genetic data and innovating new analytic approaches. Despite the critical need for this, NIH reviewers are often not ready to fund software development like this. Funding from private donors [like Minnesota Masonic Charities] allows us to get a headstart and prove the software’s utility, which then allows us to leverage larger government grants.”
—Nathan Pankratz


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