Tiny fish at VCU lab could hold pediatric cancer cure

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Tay Jones builds a puzzle, while her favorite stuffed tiger is tucked in the crook of her arm. She enjoys eating pizza, the color pink and is like most 10-year-old girls.

“I just like coloring and drawing,” she lists some of her favorite activities.

Tay Jones will auction off her painting at the Connor’s Heroes Art Ball on May 5. (Photo: Connor’s Heroes)

The talented artist also dreams of being a YouTube star when she grows up to give a voice to the homeless.

“Help them get homes and have food,” she states simply about her ambition.

From her room at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, Tay has had a lot of time to think about her future. She has spent about 120 days at the hospital since November 2015.

“As if one cancer wasn’t bad enough, she had two forms of cancer,” says Tay’s grandmother, Mary McCaskill.

Tay was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer called acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and CM7, a genetic mutation predisposing her to blood cancer. Having both conditions makes her an especially high-risk patient.

However, just a block or so away from her room is a unique lab. Tanks are filled with zebrafish. Researchers say these fish no bigger than an inch long could offer answers.

“They’re very close to humans,” explains Dr. Seth Corey, the Chief of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology and Stem Cell Transplantation at VCU.

Dr. Corey brought his lab to VCU in 2015 after the local nonprofit, Connor’s Heroes, started Richmond’s first fund dedicated to pediatric cancer.

“This research is happening right here,” says Lisa Goodwin, the co-founder of Connor’s Heroes, which is named after her son who is a leukemia survivor. “It’s gonna make a huge difference for kids like Tay and lots of others.”

Dr. Corey says the genetic makeup of zebrafish is 90% similar to humans. He and his team have been able to manipulate the genes to mimic children with conditions like Tay’s which lead to bone marrow failure.

“One goal is to be able to identify what that other second or third genetic change is,” Dr. Corey explains the research underway.

Breakthroughs will help to develop screenings to give kids with the mutation a bone marrow transplant. More therapies to treat disease already there are also on the horizon.

“I don’t even have words to describe what he’s doing, but it’s so fascinating,” says McCaskill, sitting in a chair next to Tay’s hospital bed.

McCaskill knows progress is slow, so a major find probably won’t happen during her granddaughter’s treatment.

She does acknowledge that the lab, which is one of only about a dozen in the country studying leukemia, offers hope to families and patients dealing with pediatric cancer, the number one killer of children.

“God has shown us so many different miracles and brought us through it all,” McCaskill says about her cancer journey with Tay.

Tay Jones has spent about 120 days in the hospital since her diagnosis with AML and CM7.

Dr. Corey says his pediatric zebrafish research is funded by Connor’s Heroes and the Children’s Hospital Foundation. He also receives grants from the Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, Shwachman-Diamond Syndrome Foundation of America and the CURE Childhood Cancer Foundation.

“What philanthropy does is accelerate discovery and progress,” Dr. Corey says about the support from charities.

He is hoping his zebrafish lab and other studies truly help to define the future of Richmond’s reputation in the medical community.

“We want to build Richmond into a center for pediatric cancer research,” Dr. Corey states.

The Connor’s Heroes Art Ball on May 5, 2017 at the Science Museum of Virginia will help to raise funding for Dr. Corey’s research. Follow this link for ticket information.

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