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The Building Blocks of a Cure

Leukemia researcher Patricia Ernst, PhD, is finding the gene pathways of stem cells

When Patricia Ernst, PhD, a leukemia researcher at Norris Cotton Cancer Center and Dartmouth Medical School, describes her work, her hands fly with emphasis and the words "amazing" and "remarkable" frequently appear in her rapidly spoken sentences.

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Patricia Ernst, PhD

"Leukemia treatment has seen huge improvements over the past 50 years. Some types of leukemia are treated with success, although some types are not. Now we want to know everything about the types that resist chemotherapy so that we can raise the cure rate for all types of leukemia," she says.

Working with mice, Dr. Ernst's research focuses on the mechanisms that control the balance between self-renewing and differentiating stem cell divisions. She and her team study both normal and leukemic cells to better understand how cell growth and self-renewal are disrupted by the genetic processes that lead to the creation of leukemia-causing cells. "Something goes wrong with leukemia cells and they keep dividing without listening to the signals telling them to stop," she says. "We're trying to figure out why by studying gene pathways." Stem cells are a marvel of biology, she adds. "You can take one stem cell and put it into a new animal and a whole new permanent set of blood and immune cells is reconstituted from this one cell. Isn't that amazing?"

It is. The Gabrielle's Angel Foundation thinks Dr. Ernst's work with leukemic stem cells is amazing, too. The Foundation, named for Gabrielle Rich Aouad, who died in 1996 at age 27 from acute myelogenous leukemia, recently awarded Dr. Ernst with a $225,000 three-year grant to continue her research. "The Foundation is very interested in basic science," she notes, "and they like funding projects that are working on the basic building blocks of a cure." She also received a smaller one-year grant from the Lauri Strauss Foundation, which, like the Gabrielle's Angel Foundation, was founded by the parents of a young victim of leukemia.

Dr. Ernst grew up in Seattle and received her under-graduate degree at the University of Washington. Following a graduate degree at the University of California-Los Angeles, she did post-doctoral work at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, and at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA, before coming to Dartmouth in 2004. She lights up when she talks about her beloved Nani, her Akita "lab guard dog" (according to Dr. Ernst's website, Nani holds official status as a member of the research team), just as she does when she discusses the possibilities her research may lead to. "We enjoy ourselves here, but we are also in a serious research enterprise. We're working with stem cells, the very basics of the hematopoietic (blood-forming) system, because that's where the answers are. We want to know exactly what's happening at that level.

July 25, 2010