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Sarcoma Research

Leading the way to a cure

The University of Minnesota is a national and international leader in basic science, clinical research, and the development of advances in the treatment of bone and soft tissue tumors.

The sarcoma program at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota is a collaboration of bone and soft tissue cancer specialists and researchers. It ranks as one of the top sarcoma research and treatment programs in the nation.

Sarcomas are rare, but not rare enough for University of Minnesota researchers. These cancers begin in the bone or soft tissue and are considered one of the most difficult cancers to cure. Each form of the disease has its own distinctive characteristics and presents physicians with unique challenges.

University of Minnesota physicians diagnose about 150 new sarcoma cases every year. The most common, osteosarcoma, starts in one of the approximately 200 bones in the human body, most often in teenagers and young adults. In some cases, treatment requires amputation. Many of the sarcomas only have a 60 percent survival rate.

Leading-edge research at the University of Minnesota

Sarcomas are not yet well understood.

Researchers believe their knowledge about the biology of sarcomas is 20 to 30 years behind their understanding of leukemia. The University of Minnesota is trying to close this knowledge gap with experts actively engaged in national and regional research. Most patients with sarcoma, especially those with osteosarcoma, are enrolled in clinical trials at a cost of about $20,000 per child on top of the cost of standard approved treatments.

Some patients volunteer to receive experimental drugs and others are treated with standard-of-care therapies. In most cases, physicians are also collecting tumor and blood samples from these patients to understand the biology of the disease better. The University of Minnesota is already a leader in treating children with sarcoma, but aggressive research into the cause and treatment of this disease continues.

Recent life-saving research includes:

Understanding osteosarcoma

Logan Spector, MD, Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics, is leading a four-year osteosarcoma study, funded by a $1.7 million National Cancer Institute grant, researching the link between bone growth genes and osteosarcoma in 500 patients. Preliminary research was partially funded by Children’s Cancer Research Fund.

Developing new models

David Largaespada, MD, Professor, Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development, and Department of Pediatrics, is creating models to uncover how rhabdomyosarcoma and osteosarcoma are formed and using powerful tools to test new therapies.

In just one of many collaborations underway at the university, Largaespada also is working with the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to develop a model for neurofibromatosis, a genetic disease that can be a pre-cursor to cancer, specifically brain tumors and sarcoma.

Creating unique collaborations

Christopher Moertel, MD, Clinical Director of the Neurocutaneous Syndromes Clinic Without Walls, also is studying neurofibromatosis. The clinic links the University of Minnesota with other care centers, including Gillette Children’s Specialty Health Care and Children’s Hospital and Clinics of Minnesota, in a collaborative, multidisciplinary regional resource to understand the connection between neurofibromatosis and cancer.

Working with man’s best friend

A unique study similar to that being conducted by Dr. Spector is underway at the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Sarcomas occur naturally in dogs, just as they do in humans, making dogs a suitable model for studying cancer in humans. While Dr. Spector’s work in humans will take years, “things happen way faster in dogs, so we can make progress in studying treatment much faster,” said Brenda Weigel, MD, Pediatric Hematology Oncologist at the University of Minnesota.

This program to treat animals that get sarcomas on their own is unique, she said, resulting in the ability to accelerate findings and ultimately arrive at new treatment options for humans much sooner.

Thanks to a connection between the University of Minnesota and the National Cancer Institute and the University of Michigan, owners of pets are now able to enroll their dog with sarcoma, free of charge, in a pilot study to test new therapies. Researchers hope the results will lead to clinical trials and subsequent new treatments for humans.

Developing new drugs in clinical trials

A major distinction between the University of Minnesota and other institutions is the university’s Molecular Cellular Therapeutics (MCT) facility, which has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to create new drugs for use in clinical trials. One of the trials starting soon involves using attenuated salmonella bacteria that does not cause infection but has been shown to stimulate the immune system and have a positive effect on osteosarcoma.

Children’s Cancer Research Fund: a committed partner

Children’s Cancer Research Fund’s relationship with the University of Minnesota supports the work of a multidisciplinary team of physicians who see a high volume of patients with sarcoma. This translates into an unparalleled depth of experience and coordinated advances in laboratory work, clinical research and education. Our goal is to achieve optimal outcomes. Children’s Cancer Research Fund resources help with pilot studies and provide support for clinical trials.

“Without Children’s Cancer Research Fund money, a lot of initial work would not have been done,” said Weigel. “It is as simple as keeping the machines rolling.”

Future work

University of Minnesota physicians are working hard to make multiple treatment options available to children with cancer. At the same time, they are anxious to keep the pipeline full of new possibilities. Research conducted at the university often expands into national grants and larger clinical trials.

“We are looking to change the practice of childhood cancer treatment,” said John Wagner, MD, Professor, Pediatrics, and Director, Division of Pediatrics, Hematology-Oncology, and Blood and Marrow Transplantation. “We want to impact children everywhere. What we design today impacts the future.”


Recent cutting-edge research includes

Sarcomas Program’s key initiatives:

  • Building the Program: to leverage resources across university.
  • Osteosarcoma & Rhabdomyosarcoma: to uncover how these diseases are formed.
  • Osteosarcoma: to research link between bone growth genes and this disease.
  • Dogs leading way to cure: Treating pets with sarcomas can lead to new human therapies.

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