UF pediatric oncologist awarded V Foundation grant for pediatric osteosarcoma study

University of Florida Health pediatric oncologist John A. Ligon, M.D., has been awarded a $600,000 grant from the V Foundation for Cancer Research to study a personalized immunotherapy vaccine to treat relapsed pediatric osteosarcoma.

John Ligon, M.D.

Ligon’s study, titled “Leveraging RNA-lipid Nanoparticle Vaccines to Induce Immune Response in Metastatic Pulmonary Osteosarcoma,” will use a nanoparticle vaccine originally developed by Elias Sayour, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neurosurgery and pediatrics in UF’s College of Medicine, to treat brain tumors. Sayour is undertaking a clinical trial funded by a National Institutes of Health R01 grant to test the vaccine.

“We are expanding the trial to treat even more patients and will use this grant to open a new arm for patients with unresectable tumors,” said Ligon, assistant professor in the department of pediatrics. “Nanoparticle vaccines are personalized vaccines derived from the patient’s own tumor, so they are not restricted to one disease type. It’s a really exciting platform — there are limitless possibilities for other types of cancer.”

By harnessing the patient’s immune system to destroy tumors, nanoparticle vaccines can help patients avoid the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. The vaccines could provide a new therapeutic option for patients with unresectable tumors, which are tumors that cannot be removed by surgery.

The multi-institution clinical trial through the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation is expected to begin enrolling patients in early 2023. Ligon will also use the new funding to perform correlative studies.

Elias Sayour, M.D., Ph.D.

“It’s a huge honor to receive this grant from the V Foundation, especially as a young investigator,” said Ligon, who joined the UF College of Medicine in January, in large part because he was drawn to the work being done through the UF Pediatric Cancer Immunotherapy Initiative, or PCI2, spearheaded by Sayour. “The research I’ve done and the research Dr. Sayour has done make a powerful combination. To be recognized by such a prestigious foundation so early in my career is very meaningful, and I’m excited for the new possibilities for our patients.”

Ligon expressed gratitude for the invaluable mentoring he received from Sayour and Duane Mitchell, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of UF’s Preston A. Wells Jr. Center for Brain Tumor Therapy and the Phyllis Kottler Friedman Professor in the Lillian S. Wells Department of Neurosurgery.

Duane Mitchell, M.D., Ph.D.

“Dr. Ligon is a very talented physician-scientist trained at the National Cancer Institute in tumor immunotherapy and tumor microenvironment characterizations,” Mitchell said. “We were very excited to have him join the UF team this year, and the support from his V Foundation grant will advance important studies to evaluate biomarkers of treatment response and resistance in pediatric patients receiving novel immunotherapy treatment developed at UF. In short period of time, Dr. Ligon’s work has had a major impact in advancing the goals of the UF Pediatric Cancer Immunotherapy Initiative.” 

With Ligon’s new grant, UF Health now has two immunotherapy projects for pediatric cancer supported by the V Foundation that are being advanced into novel clinical trials. This spring, the V Foundation for Cancer Research announced new funding for UF’s efforts to combat pediatric brain cancer, led by Mitchell’s team.

Mitchell, who is director of the UF Clinical and Translational Science Institute, is also associate director of innovation and discovery at the UF Health Cancer Center. Sayour serves as co-leader of the Cancer Therapeutics & Host Response (CTHR) research program at the Cancer Center, as well as principal investigator of the RNA Engineering Laboratory in the Preston A. Wells, Jr. Center for Brain Tumor Therapy and UF Brain Tumor Immunotherapy Program. 

The V Foundation for Cancer Research was founded in 1993 by ESPN and the late Jim Valvano, legendary North Carolina State University basketball coach and ESPN commentator.

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