Dr. Kyle Vining Earns Hartwell Foundation Award to Study Childhood Leukemia


Philadelphia — Every year, thousands of American children are diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common form of childhood cancer. The disease begins in bone marrow, when immature cells called “blasts” run amok and overwhelm the tissue.

Now, Dr. Kyle Vining, Assistant Professor in Preventive and Restorative Sciences in Penn Dental Medicine and in Materials Science and Engineering in Penn Engineering, has received an Individual Biomedical Research Award from The Hartwell Foundation to explore a novel approach to improving treatment for childhood leukemia. Vining, a member of the Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry (CiPD), is among ten researchers representing eight institutions selected as a 2023 Hartwell Foundation awardee; Dr. Julia T. Warren of Penn Medicine is also an awardee.

Each year, the Hartwell Foundation invites a select group of biomedical research institutions to nominate faculty for the highly competitive awards, which provide significant financial support for three years, specifically for early-stage, innovative, and cutting-edge biomedical research that has not yet received outside funding. Research proposals must focus on improving the lives of children in the United States.

To date, cellular immunotherapy has shown great promise in treating childhood leukemia by engineering immune cells to target cancerous tissue. However, many patients suffer relapses and require additional treatments, risking serious side effects.

One reason that some children do not respond to immunotherapy or relapse after treatment may be changes in their bone marrow itself. Vining’s team recently identified fibrotic tissue — that is, tissue that has hardened or scarred — in the bone marrow of such children.

With the support of the Hartwell Foundation, Vining’s lab will undertake two research projects to investigate whether structural changes in these children’s bone marrow is suppressing the effectiveness of immunotherapies.

First, the lab will investigate how engineered immune cells respond when placed in a synthetic material that mimics the fibrotic bone marrow that one of his collaborators — hematopathologist Dr. Vinodh Pillai at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia —  previously identified in children. Second, the lab will study the use of engineered immune cells to treat leukemia in an animal model.

By identifying the mechanisms in fibrotic bone marrow that interfere with cellular immunotherapy, Vining’s research may open the door to new treatments, potentially improving the efficacy of immunotherapy in children with leukemia.

“Together, the proposed studies lay the foundation to make a major scientific impact in the childhood leukemia field and ultimately improve outcomes for children,” says Vining.

To learn more about Vining’s work, visit the Vining Lab’s website.

 To learn more about the Hartwell Foundation, which primarily supports biomedical research to improve the lives of children, visit the Hartwell Foundation’s website.