Hyundai Hope On Wheels donates $500,000 for pediatric cancer research

By Sharon Reynolds

Jacob Casmir, Hyundai Regional Marketing Manager and Sadie Keller, pediatric cancer survivor

For 20 years, Hyundai Hope On Wheels has been creating hope in the fight against pediatric cancer. In one of its latest efforts, Dallas-Fort Worth Hyundai dealers joined Hyundai Motor America in awarding research grants to Drs. Theodore Laetsch and Erin Butler, researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center who are also pediatric oncologists at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, to study soft tissue sarcomas.

“Throughout the country, talented doctors are working tirelessly to help kids fight cancer by conducting research or providing bedside care,” said Scott Fink, Board Chair of Hyundai Hope On Wheels. “Our goal at Hope On Wheels is to provide these doctors with the grant funds they need to perform their lifesaving work.”

Leading the charge to get a clearer picture of the genomics of cancers and potential to personalize treatment for patients is Dr. Laetsch, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at UT Southwestern, who received a $300,000 Hyundai Hope Scholar Grant to analyze the molecular genetics of soft tissue sarcomas and patient DNA to determine how cancer starts at the genetic level. Currently, most soft tissue sarcomas are treated similarly, despite the fact that there are many different cancer types and genetic causes of these cancers. Dr. Laetsch has led the pediatric development of larotrectinib, a new drug that blocks a specific genetic mutation, called a TRK fusion, found in some cancers. In a paper published in Lancet Oncology earlier this year, Dr. Laetsch and his colleagues reported a 93 percent response rate to larotrectinib in children with soft tissue sarcomas that have TRK fusions. Now, Dr. Laetsch hopes to identify new ways to treat other patients with soft tissue sarcomas by studying the genetic changes underlying a broad range of these cancers.

Awarded a $200,000 Hyundai Young Investigator Grant, Dr. Butler, Assistant Instructor of Pediatrics at UT Southwestern and a 2012 alumna of UT Southwestern Medical School, is studying exon skipping in human cancer cells. Her research could move scientists closer toward understanding the development of rhabdomyosarcoma, the most common type of soft tissue sarcoma in children. Little is known about exon skipping in pediatric cancers, which causes cells to “skip” over sections of genetic code and result in mutations that may lead to the development of rhabdomyosarcoma. Drugs have been developed for exon skipping in adults, but scientists are just now beginning to study exon skipping for treatment of childhood cancers.

“Although significant progress has been made in treating pediatric cancers and survival rates overall are increasing, sarcomas remain a daunting challenge,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern. “Much work is yet to be done to ensure all children battling cancer have hope for a healthy future, which is what makes the gift from Hope On Wheels so impactful. We are grateful for Hyundai’s commitment to helping us make this goal a reality.”

Hyundai Hope On Wheels was established in 1998 by Hyundai and its U.S. dealers to fund scientific research and create awareness for childhood cancer. Today, Hyundai Motor America and its more than 830 dealers and customers support the cause with a donation from every new vehicle sold. Hyundai has become a national leader in pediatric cancer research, giving over $145 million through more than 800 research grants to support discovery at groundbreaking research institutes across the nation.

(From left) Dr. Erin Butler, Sadie Keller, Dr. Theodore Laetsch

Dr. Podolsky holds the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.


Meet Sadie, Cancer Warrior

Sadie Keller

Denton sixth-grader and cancer survivor Sadie Keller celebrated with Drs. Erin Butler and Theodore Laetsch during the presentation of their research grants at the Children’s Health Hope On Wheels handprint ceremony in September. Sadie and other young cancer patients used colorful paint to mark their handprints on the “Hope Vehicle” to commemorate their battles with the disease.

Sadie had some of the rarest and most difficult side effects from chemotherapy, but that did not stop her from beating leukemia into remission and emerging as an accomplished anti-cancer activist. She has secured the donations of thousands of toys for pediatric patients, made YouTube videos about cancer that have received thousands of views, and lobbied Congress several times about the need to fund pediatric cancer, research, and treatment. All of this she experienced before celebrating her 10th birthday.

“From the beginning of my diagnosis, I started making videos in my mom’s closet, explaining what it was like to have cancer as a child,” said Sadie. “I wanted to help all those kids just like me who didn’t know what was going to happen. If I can tell them what to expect, then maybe they won’t be so scared.”