Every year, approximately 300,000 children are diagnosed with cancer and about 80,000 die of cancer. In 2009, World Community Grid joined the battle to improve these grim statistics by supporting Help Fight Childhood Cancer. With the aid of more than 200,000 volunteers who donated their devices’ computing time, the project helped scientists discover several potential drug candidates that may lead to treatments for neuroblastoma, one of the more common cancers in infants and young children.
Now, Dr. Akira Nakagawara, the lead scientist from Help Fight Childhood Cancer, has created an international team of researchers to look for drug candidates for additional types of childhood cancers through the Smash Childhood Cancer project. And once again, the team is asking for volunteers from around the world to donate their unused computing time to the study.
A Life Dedicated to Fighting Cancer
Dr. Nakagawara’s determination to fight cancer began while he was still a child. His beloved father, who was a dentist, was diagnosed with cancer while Dr. Nakagawara was in elementary school. He says, “After witnessing my father’s illness, and ultimately his death, I was determined to devote my life to fighting cancer.”
In medical school, Dr. Nakagawara chose to specialize in childhood cancers. “I felt that if I could advance research into the eradication of childhood cancers, the results could also be applied to adult cancers,” he explains. Over the course of his career, he has become an internationally known and respected pediatric oncologist. He travels throughout the world to work with colleagues from many countries, and is deeply engaged in research and development for new cancer treatments. In particular, he is an authority on neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer that forms in certain types of nerve tissue.
Fighting Childhood Cancer with the Help of Volunteer Computing
Working with other researchers, Dr. Nakagawara identified several key proteins that are associated with neuroblastoma. But once these key proteins were identified, he knew he would need to search through a library of millions of potential drug treatments to find any that could potentially disable these proteins and destroy neuroblastoma cells.
So, in 2009, he turned to World Community Grid volunteers who donate their unused computing time to humanitarian science, and the Help Childhood Cancer project was created. “We were excited by the idea of such massive computing power being available for our research,” Dr. Nakagawara says. “We also liked the community aspect—that World Community Grid is for everyone, and anyone with a computer and an internet connection can participate.”
More than 200,000 people from around the world supported the project by downloading World Community Grid’s software, which allowed a portion of their computers’ power to be used to perform virtual experiments on behalf of Dr. Nakagawara. And in 2014, the researchers announced a breakthrough discovery of seven potential drug candidates that destroyed neuroblastoma cells in mice, and crucially, did so without causing any apparent side effects.
Expanding the Search
While he continues research on the promising drug candidates found through his first World Community Grid project, Dr. Nakagawara and a larger, international research team are launching a new study. In addition to further research into potential neuroblastoma treatments, the new Smash Childhood Cancer project will also search for new treatments for:
- Brain tumors
- Wilms’ tumor – a malignant tumor of the kidney
- Hepatoblastoma – cancer of the liver
- Germ cell tumors – immature cells that can appear in the reproductive and central nervous system in children
- Osteosarcoma – bone cancer
In the future, Smash Childhood Cancer may expand to include additional childhood cancers.
Using the same research tools and methods that led to promising findings during the Help Childhood Cancer project, Smash Childhood Cancer’s approach is to find ligands (chemical compounds or molecules) that bind to specific target proteins involved in the childhood cancers listed above. Led by Dr. Nakagawara, the expanded research team involves the following institutions and scientists:
- Saga Medical Center KOSEIKAN – Hideki Izumi, PhD; Yuanyuan Li, PhD; Atsushi Nagatomo
- Chiba University – Tyuji Hoshino, PhD
- University of Hong Kong – Godfrey Chi-Fung Chan, MD, DMD, MSc
- Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, and University of Connecticut School of Medicine– Ching C. Lau, MD, PhD, FAAP
- Kyoto University – Yasuhiro Yamada, PhD
Your Help is Crucial
On their own, Dr. Nakagawara and his research team would have enormous difficulty screening millions of chemical compounds. Fortunately, that’s where World Community Grid can help—by allowing researchers to use virtual screening techniques to evaluate these compounds against the specific proteins associated with childhood cancers. This virtual screening process allows the researchers to predict the effectiveness of many drugs as potential cancer treatments.
Dr. Nakagawara and his team are excited and optimistic to begin the new project, which has great potential for the many children and families who are affected every year by cancer. He says, “We hope everyone will sign up to contribute to this project, and tell your friends as well. The more volunteers we have donating their unused computing time, the more quickly we can smash childhood cancer…together.”
To contribute to Smash Childhood Cancer, join World Community Grid, or if you are already a volunteer, make sure the project is selected on your My Projects page.