Dana-Lynn Ko’omoa-Lange, Western New England University Associate Professor of Pharmacology, was recently awarded a $423,743 grant to support her pediatric cancer research, the university announced.

The R15 grant, funded by the National Cancer Institute, will help fund Ko’omoa-Lange’s work to target cases of high-risk neuroblastoma, or HRNB, that have relapsed. This is a type of pediatric cancer connected with a “significant mortality rate among affected children,” the university stated.

“It is a very fatal disease once it relapses,” Ko’omoa-Lange told Reminder Publishing. “What I’m looking at specifically are unique mechanisms that can be targeted to develop new drugs for relapsed neuroblastoma.” She explained that her research analyzes specific signals that lead HRNB to relapse.

This differs from other’s research on HRNB because she is utilizing the signals to eliminate cancer cells rather than only block the cell’s signals, which can cause side effects, Ko’omoa-Lange stated.

“They’re trying to inhibit the calcium signaling that promotes tumor progression and we’re looking at a unique signal and manipulating that … to actual kill the tumor cell,” she said, explaining that this helps to avoid targeting non-cancer cells with the same signals.

The three-year NCI grant will help fund supplies and necessary tests to further this research as well as allow students to assist Ko’omoa-Lange, she said.

“Part of it is training the next generation of researchers,” Ko’omoa-Lange stated, emphasizing that while she has worked with students during her 13.5 years of this HRNB project– with some as young as middle school – this occurred at previous universities, as she only joined WNE in the summer of 2023. For this reason, she hopes the grant funds will create increase student participation for the project in the communities around WNE.

When asked about the possible impacts of her research, Ko’omoa-Lange highlighted pre-clinical and clinical trials as a possible next step if her research showed that manipulating calcium signals was effective. Long term, this could help create better treatments for relapsed HRNB cases, she said.

Ko’omoa-Lange emphasized the support of WNE and Dr. John Pezzuto, Dean of WNE’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, in helping her receive the grant. Pezzuto also served as a mentor for Ko’omoa-Lange during a previous five-year NCI grant in 2012, she said.

“He’s been a mentor of mine for 13, 14 years,” Ko’omoa-Lange said. “And I think having that support has been instrumental in helping me to also get this grant.”