‘Courtney’s Courage’ Empowers Young Scientists to Advance Pediatric Cancer Research

Courtney Page Zillman Fellow Megan Stanley Molina, doctoral candidate under the mentorship of UA Steele Children’s Research Center pediatric cancer researcher Dr. Emmanuel Katsanis conducts research that seeks to understand the best ways to use anticancer drugs to prepare a patient’s immune system for bone marrow transplantation.

Courtney’s Courage donated $40,000 to the University of Arizona Steele Children’s Research Center to support the “Courtney Page Zillman Fellow” Megan Stanley Molina.

Molina is pursuing a doctorate in immunobiology. She works under the mentorship of UA Steele Center pediatric cancer researcher Emmanuel Katsanis, MD, professor and division chief of pediatric hematology/oncology; director, UA Cancer Center Blood and Marrow Transplant Program; and Louise Thomas Endowed Chair in Pediatric Cancer Research.

“At the Steele Center, we are dedicated to those we mentor, because they are our future researchers,” said Fayez K. Ghishan, MD, center director. “This is how we propagate knowledge, move medicine forward and help children with devastating diseases like cancer.”

Molina’s interest in science blossomed in high school while taking anatomy and physiology classes. “I was astounded by the degree to which scientists were able to uncover complex mechanisms at the cellular level, and that fascination encouraged me to do research of my own,” Molina explained. She went on to study pharmaceutical sciences and earned a master of science degree.

Now, in her second year as a UA doctoral candidate, Molina is an integral member of Dr. Katsanis’ pediatric cancer research team. Her project is focused on understanding how chemotherapy affects the development and function of host dendritic cells—a specific population of cells responsible for mounting the body’s immune responses.

“We are comparing what is the current standard chemotherapy used for transplants—cyclophosphamide—with an alternative chemotherapy—bendamustine—which we believe may work better,” said Molina. She and the research team are evaluating how each of these pre-conditioning drugs (given before bone marrow transplant) affect the immune system, and in particular how they affect the kind of cells (“antigen-presenting cells”) that initiate an immune response.

”Ultimately we want to figure out how the drugs affect the immune system differently, to try to understand the mechanisms by which bendamustine may be a better alternative for preventing graft-versus-host-disease following bone marrow transplant,” Molina said.

“This research may result in a reduction of severe graft-versus-host disease, while preserving efficient graft-versus-tumor reactions,” said Dr. Katsanis. “We’re grateful to Courtney’s Courage for their continued investment in our pediatric cancer research through the Courtney Page Zillman Fellow Program.”

The Courtney Page Zillman Fellow Program was established by Kathy Zillman-Ogden and Jerry Zillman in 2000, after the heartbreaking death of their 4-year old daughter, Courtney, from neuroblastoma on Thanksgiving Day in 1999. “We were talking to one of Courtney’s oncologists about the best way to contribute to research,” said Zillman-Ogden. “Heexplained that investing in talented doctoral fellows would ensure ongoing pediatric cancer research by bright young scientists, while helping them build their careers. So, we created the Courtney Page Zillman Fellow Program in Courtney’s honor.”

Over nearly 20 years, the program has supported eight promising researchers. Each researcher is supported for two to three years. Fellows have conducted research in cancer immunology, cancer vaccines, cancer immunotherapy and the anticancer effects of medicinal herbs. Their findings have provided valuable data, enabling the UA Steele Center to secure additional National Institutes of Health grants to further advance pediatric cancer research.

“We are thrilled to fund Megan as our eighth Courtney Page Zillman Fellow,” said Zillman-Ogden, one of the founders of Courtney’s Courage. “We’re grateful to our golf tournament sponsors and TIC CUP Charities for making this possible. By investing in promising young researchers, we ensure more is being done to find new treatments and eventually cures for pediatric cancers.”

To learn more about Courtney’s Courage, please visit: www.courtneyscourage.org

About the UA Steele Children’s Research Center

The University of Arizona Steele Children’s Research Center is one of the prestigious Centers of Excellence at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson at the UA Health Sciences. It is the state’s only academic pediatric research center designated by the Arizona Board of Regents, and the only facility in Southern Arizona where researchers and physician-scientists are dedicated to advancing medical knowledge through basic and translational research to improve children’s health. As researchers, they seek to discover answers to children’s medical mysteries. As physician-scientists, they provide compassionate care to hospitalized patients at Banner Children’s at Diamond Children’s Medical Center and pediatric outpatient clinics throughout Tucson and the state. And, as faculty members with the UA Department of Pediatrics, they teach and train the next generation of pediatricians and researchers.