About Us

The Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center offers children access to more than 300 clinical trials—some of the newest treatment options in the country. In fact, approximately 90 percent of our eligible cancer patients are enrolled in a clinical trial, making us among the leading cancer centers for clinical trial enrollment by the Children’s Oncology Group (COG).

COG is the world’s largest, cooperative cancer research entity with 240 member hospitals worldwide devoted exclusively to childhood and adolescent cancer research. Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center is among only 21 centers nationwide and one of three in the Southeast to receive this prestigious designation.

All the children treated at our center are evaluated for participation in a clinical trial. Our doctors, who are all researchers, are always looking for ways to apply research findings to improve children’s care. Our collaboration with Emory University School of Medicine, Winship Cancer Institute, Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia Institute of Technology—as well as other national and regional organizations—allows us to offer some of today’s most promising therapies.

Search our online clinical trials database

Clinical trial highlights

MacDonald leads first-in-pediatrics brain tumor trial

Tobey MacDonald, M.D., Director of the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center’s Neuro-Oncology Program, helped to initiate the “first in child” clinical investigation of Indoximod (immunotherapy targeting the IDO immune checkpoint pathway) for the treatment of children with all types of refractory brain tumors. He is also one of 8 members on the NIH Brain Malignancies Steering Committee and a member of the FDA Pediatric Oncologic Drug Advisory Committee, which work together to help to shape the future direction of national clinical trials for pediatric brain tumors. Dr. MacDonald was recognized by U.S. News & World Report in 2016 as a top pediatric oncologist in the country.

Learn more about Tobey MacDonald, M.D.

Qayed leads trial using mesenchymal stromal cells from bone marrow

Bone marrow transplantation is performed in some patients with cancers of the blood or bone marrow, as well as in some patients with sickle cell disease, thalassemia, aplastic anemia and other disorders of the immune system. Graft-versus-host-disease (GVHD) is life-threatening complication of bone marrow transplantation in which donor immune lymphocytes attack the organs of the bone marrow transplant recipient. Symptoms of GVHD disease include severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, weight loss, skin rash and liver damage. Additionally, chronic GVHD can affect the joints and lungs, among other organs. Available therapies designed to suppress GVHD do not work in everyone. For patients with GVHD who do not respond to first-line therapy, there is no reliable cure, and GVHD can be life-threatening or a life-long disabling condition. The frequency of GVHD after bone marrow transplantation is high, highlighting the need for new therapies.

The current clinical trial uses mesenchymal stromal cells from the bone marrow. These cells have been studied more recently for treatment of a wide array of diseases, including autoimmune diseases. They have appealing properties that help with modulating the immune system and promoting wound healing. In most other studies, the cells are obtained from a donor (not the patient), they are frozen after preparation and are infused immediately after thawing. The personalized cells in this trial are derived from the patient's own bone marrow rather than using another person's, making the product more likely to be effective. Physician-researchers at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University harvest bone marrow cells from children and adults (12 to 65 years) with GVHD.

The team manufactures these cells without using animal products, in the Emory Personalized Immunotherapy Center (EPIC), a dedicated pharmaceutical grade facility located within Emory University Hospital, and the cells are delivered fresh and living to the patient. By infusing large doses of these personalized bone marrow cells into bone marrow transplant recipients, the physician-researchers aim to target sites of inflammation, potentially reducing GVHD in the intestine, liver and skin and limiting long-term organ damage.

Muna Qayed, M.D., MSc. is a Pediatric Hematologist/Oncologist at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and an assistant professor at Emory School of Medicine. Dr. Qayed leads the clinical trial, which is offered only in Atlanta and is supported by CURE Childhood Cancer.

Learn more about Emory Personalized Immunotherapy Center (EPIC)

Learn more about CURE Childhood Cancer

Our Research

Blood and marrow transplantation (BMT)

A blood and marrow stem cell transplant replaces a person's abnormal stem cells with healthy ones from another person (donor). This procedure allows the recipient to get new stem cells that work properly. Stem cells can develop into cells with different skills, so they're useful in treating diseases such as cancer and sickle cell disease.

Our clinical and translational researchers are investigating:

  • BMT for inherited diseases
  • Alternate-donor BMT, including unrelated, mismatched (a single, nonmatching antigen), haploidentical (matching a tissue type with that of a donor’s) or umbilical cord blood donors
  • Stem cell transplantation and how it’s tolerated by the body (there’s no adverse immune response)
  • The altered physiology associated with sickle cell disease 
  • The role and regulation of endothelial chemokines (substances that attract white blood cells to an infection) in disease
  • Innovative therapies and immunotherapy (treatment with substances that stimulate the immune response)

Over the past few years, the Aflac Cancer Center BMT Program has experienced rapid growth in the number of Aflac Cancer Center-initiated clinical trials, with close ties to translational research.

The focus of our basic research is to:

  • Identify the major issues that affect how transplantation is tolerated in a highly immunologically active blood disease, such as sickle cell
  • Determine how natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell) affect transplantation tolerance
  • Identify the major issues that affect transplantation tolerance in primates 
  • Discover causes of transplantation intolerance that result in graft-versus-host disease (transplanted cells attack the organism that received the transplant) during BMT in a rhesus macaque (type of monkey)
  • Explore cell and biological therapy for cancer and immune disorders
  • Investigate the use of stem cells for regenerative medicine (replacing or regenerating cells), immune modulation (changing the immune response) and delivery of therapeutic proteins (pharmaceuticals, such as insulin) to treat acquired and hereditary diseases

The Aflac Cancer Center BMT Program is a national leader in primate transplantation research—we’re home to the only primate GvHD (graft-versus-host disease) model in the country.

Brain tumors

Our researchers are investigating the metastasis (spread of cancer to another part of the body) of medulloblastoma, a type of brain tumor that occurs in infants and young children. In addition, they’re exploring safer, more effective methods of treatment for children with brain tumors.

Our clinical and translational research includes:

  • Targeted therapeutics: The discovery of new medicines (targets) to change the way cancer cells behave. Our doctors are conducting clinical trials to test identified targeted therapeutics for children with brain tumors. 
  • Genomic biomarkers: Insights into the biology of children’s brain tumors that have led to clinical trials to test new medicines. 
  • Nanotechnology: The study and creation of targeted, molecular-sized nanoparticles to treat diseases. Nanomedicine has the potential to revolutionize the treatment and care of—and ultimately cure—childhood diseases and conditions.

Basic research includes:

  • Regulation of medulloblastoma metastasis: Research to develop a drug therapy that stops the spread of medulloblastoma as an alternative to the often-damaging whole-brain radiation therapy, which follows surgery to remove a brain tumor. Currently, Tobey MacDonald, M.D., is studying medulloblastoma. However, if the approach is successful, it could potentially be applied to any kind of tumor anywhere in the body.
  • Learn more about Dr. MacDonald’s research
  • Oncogenic signaling in medulloblastoma: A study to find a gentler cure for medulloblastoma. Robert Castellino, M.D., is researching a gene called wild-type p53-induced phosphatase (WIP1).

Cancer survivorship

Our grant-funded research focus includes education, health promotion, quality of life and specific issues in cancer survivors.

Education and health promotion

  • Agency for Health Care Research & Quality (AHCRQ): This project built SurvivorLink, an online resource designed to support care for survivors of childhood cancer throughout Georgia. It provides educational materials to improve awareness of survivorship issues and best practices in survivor care.
  • Learn more about SurvivorLink
  • Learn more about AHCRQ
  • LIVESTRONG: This project, formerly called the Lance Armstrong Foundation, aims to educate Georgia's healthcare professionals about the need for specialized, lifelong follow-up care of childhood cancer survivors.
  • Dudley Moore Nursing and Allied Health Research Fund: This grant funds research that evaluates how new childhood cancer survivors are educated. Research will identify areas that need further education and emphasis among cancer survivors. 

Health status and quality of life

  • Emory Seed Grant: This grant established the Childhood, Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Survivor (CAYACS) Study that developed an ethnically diverse, prospective group of childhood, adolescent and young adult cancer survivors. 
  • LIVESTRONG Community Participatory Research Grant: This grant established a community partnership between Children's, CSP and several community groups to identify and contact more than 1,300 adolescent and young adult cancer survivors, including those who weren’t contacted for long-term follow up.

Specific issues in cancer survivors

  • Childhood Cancer Survivor Study (CCSS): This National Cancer Institute-funded study explores health problems that develop later in life as a result of cancer treatment, also known as late effects.
  • LIVESTRONG grant: This grant funded research to explore testicular and sexual dysfunction in adult men who had childhood cancer.

Clinical research

Our clinical research seeks to improve health in cancer survivors, develop communication strategies to promote good health, and discover ways to improve health services research.

Health-related outcomes

Our researchers are exploring:

  • Research methodology and statistical applications around clinical outcomes research 
  • Late effects of childhood and adolescent cancer treatment
  • Testicular and sexual function
  • Nonmelanoma skin cancer
  • Genetics of skin cancer
  • Growth hormone treatment and second central nervous system neoplasms (new, abnormal tissue growths)
  • Low body mass index (BMI)
  • Ways to improve screening and treatment for late effects 
  • Endocrine and nonendocrine late effects in brain tumor patients

Communication

We’re seeking new ways to inform cancer survivors about health risks and improve their health and quality of life through:

  • SurvivorLink (AHCRQ) 
  • Education of Georgia healthcare providers (LIVESTRONG) 
  • Social media and adolescent and young adult transition (Georgia Tech Health Systems Institute) 
  • Communicating infertility risk (CURE) 

Gene therapy

Gene therapy is an experimental technique that uses genes to treat or prevent disease. Using this therapy, researchers insert one or more corrective genes, which have been designed in the lab, into the genetic material of a patient's cells to correct the effects of a disease-causing mutation.

Our basic research in gene therapy focuses on hemophilia (a blood clotting disorder) and cancer.

Hemophilia A

Our researchers are focusing on factor VIII (fVIII), a protein involved in blood clotting:

  • Recombinant viral vectors, which are used to deliver genetic materials into cells, have the potential to be a cure for hemophilia A.
  • Using high-expression elements can reduce the cost of recombinant fVIII production—approximately 70 percent of patients with hemophilia A aren’t treated, and a reduction in the cost producing fVIII will increase access to the protein.

Learn more about gene therapy for hemophilia

Cancer

Our researchers are pioneering an approach to treat cancer using novel immunotherapies—treatments that use substances to stimulate the immune response—called drug resistance immunotherapy (DRI). They’re exploring whether immunocompetent cells (those with a normal immune response) can be genetically engineered to withstand the toxic effects of chemotherapy, and, if so, whether the genetic modification makes it possible to use both chemotherapy and cell-based immunotherapy. The ability to use both types of treatment, rather than a single approach, could improve survival rates.

Hemostasis and thrombosis

The focus of our clinical research on hemostasis (stoppage of bleeding or hemorrhage) and thrombosis (blood clotting) includes rare bleeding diseases and platelet disorders.

Hemophilia
Hemophilia is a rare bleeding disorder in which the blood doesn't clot normally and causes internal bleeding into muscles and joints. Our researchers are exploring:

  • Treatment of severe hemophilia A with secondary prophylaxis, which involves the infusion of a clotting factor to prevent bleeding
  • Risk factors due to low bone density in hemophilia patients 
  • Factor VIII (fVIII) inhibitors—which prevent blood from clotting normally—in patients with hemophilia undergoing surgery
  • Mechanisms of fVIII inhibitor development 
  • Treatment of hemophilia with therapies created by separating, purifying and concentrating proteins found in blood plasma, also known as recombinant products
  • Pharmacokinetics (the movement of medicine within the body) and the safety of human recombinant fIX (medicine that controls bleeding) 
  • 32P synovectomy, a treatment that uses radioactive compounds to treat hemophilia 
  • Platelet function in hemophilia

In addition, researchers are studying:

  • Rare bleeding disorders and the efficacy and safety of recombinant fXIII, a medicine that prevents bleeding
  • Platelet dysfunction of immune and nonimmune (drug induced) thrombocytopenia, a deficiency of platelets in the blood that causes abnormal bleeding
  • Risk factors for the development of thrombosis (blood clots) and treatments using recombinant products

Our basic and translational research focus includes:

  • Mechanisms of fVIII inhibitor formation and its ability to cause disease
  • Regulation of fVIII expression
  • Development of fVIII products, which prevent bleeding
  • Mechanisms of platelet activation and thrombosis

Leukemia and lymphoma

Our researchers are investigating safer, less toxic and more effective methods of treatment for children with leukemia (cancer of the blood) and lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic tissues).

Our clinical and translational researchers are focusing studies on aberrant signaling nodes (lymph nodes that aren’t behaving normally) and novel medicines and combinations. Their research includes:

  • Nanoscale proteomics: Kevin Bunting, Ph.D., and Himalee Sabnis, M.D., M.Sc., along with senior research technician Heath Bradley, are using the NanoPro 1000 system (equipment that performs biological analysis) to obtain precise and quantitative data of the phosphorylation states of proteins separated by isoelectric focusing. They’re developing new procedures to investigate signaling pathways in patient samples.
  • mTOR targeted therapies: Frank Keller, M.D., (acute lymphoblastic leukemia) and Drs. Bunting and Sabnis (acute myeloid leukemia) are trying to inhibit the mTOR (an enzyme that regulates cell metabolism and growth) pathway using innovative approaches in combination with rapamycin, an anti-rejection medicine.

Basic research includes:

  • MDM2 signaling in cancer treatment: Muxiang Zhou, M.D., and Lubing Gu, M.D., are searching for small-molecule compounds that insulate the connections between the MDM2 and XIAP genes. This insulating effect disrupts the signals from MDM2 to boost the production of the cancer-resistant XIAP, allowing cancer cells to become more sensitive to chemotherapy.
  • STAT5/mTOR signaling: Dr. Bunting specializes in studying a molecule called STAT5, a protein that binds to DNA and regulates gene expression. The protein shows great promise as a treatment that would greatly reduce unwanted side effects, such as those that occur with radiation therapy. STAT5 could also lead to a revolutionary treatment of childhood cancer and other diseases.
  • STAT5: Dr. Bunting is studying the biology of STAT5 and its role in normal production of blood cells, as well as its abnormal function associated with a variety of blood diseases. A major focus of his research is to identify genes associated with normal and leukemic (affected by leukemia) blood cell production and develop a treatment approach that manipulates STAT5 function. In addition, Dr. Bunting is studying the Grb2 protein (associated with leukemia) and its interaction with STAT5 to develop new therapies. 

Sickle cell disease

Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder that causes red blood cells to change shape.

Our researchers are seeking ways to improve outcomes and quality of life for children with this disease through blood and marrow transplantation (BMT) and transfusion medicine (the transfer of blood and blood components).

Our clinical and translational researchers are seeking a cure and looking for ways to improve treatments and the quality of life for children with the disease. They’re studying:

  • Health outcomes and new therapies, such as hydroxyurea (a medicine) and stem cell transplantation 
  • Prevention of sickle cell disease complications, such as kidney damage, pain and stroke
  • Red blood cell alloimmunization, an undesired immune response that occurs after BMT 
  • Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals)

Our basic researchers are exploring:

  • Whether angiogenic growth factors (promote blood vessel formation) play a protective or destructive role in the structure of the lining of blood vessels in the lungs and in leg ulcers in sickle cell disease
  • Antioxidant enzymes that protect the vessels in the lungs from oxidant-induced changes in the structural resistance of vessels in sickle cell disease pulmonary hypertension
  • Cellular interactions in sickle cell disease to determine their relative contributions to blocked blood vessels, blood cell rupture or destruction, and the formation of reactive oxygen species (a natural byproduct of normal oxygen metabolism)
  • The development of sickle cell disease in respect to the generation, prevention and treatment of organ dysfunction—specifically the role of endothelial (inner lining of blood vessel) cells in the generation of kidney disease
  • Genetic association studies to identify markers that influence the incidence of pulmonary hypertension and leg ulcers in sickle cell disease
  • Nanotechnology—the study and creation of targeted, molecular-sized nanoparticles to treat diseases—which has the potential to revolutionize the treatment and care of childhood conditions and could ultimately lead to cures

Solid tumors

A solid tumor is an abnormal clump of cells that doesn't contain any liquid or cysts. They can occur in bones, tissues and organs.

Our researchers are looking for new ways to improve the health and quality of life for children with solid tumors by exploring:

  • New medicines to change the way cancer cells behave, also called targeted therapeutics 
  • New combinations of medicines
  • Mechanisms involved in chemoresistance, a trait found in some cancers that make them less likely to respond to chemotherapy
  • High-risk neuroblastoma therapy and outcomes 

Our basic research focus includes:

  • Improving the effectiveness of chemotherapy in neuroblastoma treatment by targeting molecular structures that protect neuroblastoma cells 
  • Biologic validation of Phase I agents 

Transfusion medicine

Transfusion medicine involves transfusion of blood or blood components. It’s used to treat diseases such as bone cancer, leukemia, sickle cell disease and others.

Our clinical researchers are exploring ways to improve transfusion treatments and minimize potential complications by investigating:

  • Transfusion-transmitted cytomegalovirus (CMV), a common virus that causes infection and can be dangerous for people with weakened immune systems
  • Potential adverse effects of stored red blood cells
  • Alloimmunization (an undesired immune response that can occur after transfusion) in sickle cell patients
  • Development of a pediatric transfusion medicine training curriculum
  • Transfusion medicine and hemostasis (stopping bleeding or hemorrhage) network trials

Our basic research focus includes:

  • Red blood cell alloimmunization
  • Blood and marrow transplantation (BMT) rejection primed by red blood cell or platelet transfusions
  • Red blood cell autoimmunity (an immune response against an organism’s own cells and tissues)
  • Red blood cell antigen loss