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Christy Gearheart, CSE PhD Alum Profile

Dr. Christy Gearheart, a computational biologist in Pediatric Hematology-Oncology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is focused on improving outcomes for patients with cancer.

Under the direction of Drs. Chris Porter and Aik-Choon Tan, Dr. Gearheart is developing and applying computational solutions to finding therapeutic targets for acute myeloid leukemia (AML). AML is the second most common leukemia in children. Despite attempts at optimizing dosages of highly toxic chemotherapies, it continues to have the lowest survival rates of all leukemias, on average 50-60% in pediatric patients and less than 10% in elderly patients survive long-term.

Dr. Gearheart and her collaborators are using a systematic strategy developed in their lab that combines cutting edge molecular biology techniques and computational analyses to identify genes essential for cancer cells survival when exposed to a conventional chemotherapy drug.

Using a genome-wide shRNA library with next-generation gene sequencing technology as a screening tool, they are trying to find which shRNAs are less common or missing in cancer cells that survive standard chemotherapy treatments. These genes are then individually validated to determine if they truly are therapeutic targets. Preliminary work has led to the discovery of a gene called WEE1 which, when inhibited, makes ARAC (a chemotherapy drug) work better at killing cancer cells. Using a WEE1 inhibitor currently in Phase II trials, they are determining how best to translate these findings into a clinical trial.

With the approach now in place, Dr. Gearheart and her collaborators are working to improve the methodology and branch out to look for treatment targets in other pediatric cancers.

To read more about their work with WEE1, see “Integrated genomic analyses identify WEE1 as a critical mediator of cell fate and a novel therapeutic target in acute myeloid leukemia” recently published in Leukemia.

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