Dr. Ulrich Steidl had a "eureka" moment recently.
He was leading a team of researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in the Bronx made a discovery that could ultimately improve survival rates in acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
Steidl, a New Rochelle resident and assistant professor of cell biology and medical oncology, said a gene was discovered that is "selectively overactivated" in AML cases.
He and his team found that killing the gene in both human and mouse AML cells could improve AML survival rates.
"We were testing a lot of genes," Steidl said, "and it was a very exciting moment when you find something and all the leukemia cells are dead."
"Every gene produces a protein that is a product of the DNA," he said, "and if it's overactivated, it produces more of the protein."
More of the protein is bad for the surrounding tissue, causing a cancer—in the case of leukemia, the cancer is of the blood cells.
According to the National Cancer Institute, AML will be diagnosed in one of every 254 people during their lifetime. It is estimated 10,200 people will die from the disease in 2012, most within a few years of diagnosis.
The research which led to Steidl's finding was funded by the New York-based Gabrielle's Angel Foundation for Cancer Research.
Steidl said the research is still in the pre-clinical stage.
He said there are possibly a couple of ways the discovery could eventually be applied in patients.
"If we inhibit this molecule," Steidl said, "we can inhibit the growth of the protein" to possibly slow down or cure the leukemia.
The second way could affect the level of treatment in patients with AML.
By comparing the levels of the protein produced by the gene in different subjects, Steidl found that patients with lower levels were living longer.
"The more aggressive disease has higher levels," he said, and that could help determine how best to treat it.
Christa Justus, director of grants and operations for Gabrielle's Angel Foundation, said that this was an exciting discovery.
"The part of my job I love the most is calling the recipients of these grants telling them they got the funding," she said.
"To be able to hear from our grantees firsthand the effect our funding is having is a personally very rewarding feeling—to touch these people's lives," Justus said.
She said Steidl's was one of 42 grant submissions the foundation received in 2009. Eleven were chosen to receive a total of $2.5 million in funds.
A medical advisory board chooses the recipients in what Justus said was a highly competitive process.
"We only fund the creme de la creme," she said, adding that most of the researchers have gone on to obtain funding on a national level.
Justus said the foundation only funds junior investigators—assistant professors.
"Part of our mission is getting them when they are just starting their labs," she said.
"Funding cancer research is vital to finding better treatment and cures," Justus said. "Gabrielle's Angel Foundation believes that research is the way we are going to come up with a cure, another Gleevec."
Gleevec (imatinib), which was approved by the FDA in 2001, is a treatment for chronic myeloid leukemia (CML).
"People can be diagnosed with CML and take this pill and never have any symptoms of cancer," Justus said.
Steidl moved to New Rochelle about five years ago from Boston, where he worked at the Harvard Medical School. He has a wife and a young son.
He said he was grateful for the work Gabrielle's Angel Foundation does in supporting research.
"I think that these days private funds play a major role in maintaining essential research," Steidl said. "It is much harder now to get federal funding."
To donate to Gabrielle's Angel Foundation for Cancer Research, go here.