Rohan Fernandes, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, received more than $700,000 from the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation to research treatment for neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer that forms in certain types of nerve tissue, typically starting on the adrenal glands.

“Neuroblastoma is one of the most prevalent types of solid tumors in children,” Fernandes explained. He added that the survival rate for “high-risk neuroblastoma, a particular subtype of neuroblastoma that we are looking at, is pretty dismal at around 40 percent despite intense, multimodal therapies.”

Neuroblastoma is the third leading cause of cancer-related death among children, accounting for 10-15 percent of pediatric cancer deaths. Alex’s Lemonade Stand founder and namesake, Alexandra Scott, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma shortly before her first birthday and died at the age of 8.

Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation named Fernandes one of the recipients of the highly competitive ‘A’ Award, a four-year grant for early career independent scientists with an interest in pediatric oncology.

Fernandes and his team have engineered a “nanoimmunotherapy,” which combines the benefits of nanoparticles with a class of immunotherapy called checkpoint inhibitors, for treating neuroblastoma. The nanoparticles are administered to neuroblastoma tumors where they are activated with near infrared light. The light activation causes the nanoparticles to heat and destroy tumor tissue and elicit a robust anti-tumor response from the immune system. These anti-tumor effects are made more potent by the administration of the checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy.

“We seek to understand the effects of these disparate, yet complementary, treatment modalities on the immune system with the goal of eliciting the most potent immune response against neuroblastoma,” said Fernandes. “We believe that localized treatment using nanoparticles along with systemic treatment with checkpoint inhibitors can offer a better prognosis for patients with high-risk neuroblastoma.”

The project is funded through 2021 with the possibility of a one year extension.

For more on the project, titled “An Engineered Nanoimmunotherapy for Treating Neuroblastoma,” visit https://www.alexslemonade.org/grantee/rohan-fernandes-phd.