While Michigan football fans eagerly await a showdown against No. 11 Wisconsin at Michigan Stadium on Oct. 1, another face-off between the two storied universities is taking place this month.

The University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital has challenged the University of Wisconsin American Family Children’s Hospital to the Wolverine/Badger Challenge, a month-long fundraising competition to see who can raise more money for childhood cancer research.

Valerie Opipari, chair of the department of pediatrics and communicable diseases at the University, approached Wisconsin this year about the friendly competition as part of Mott’s larger Block Out Cancer campaign, which launched in 2013.

“They loved the idea,” Opipari said. “The primary goal in the month of September, which is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, is to raise awareness around the significant problem that certain childhood cancers have in causing death in children.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is the leading cause of death past infancy among U.S. children. An estimated 10,380 new cases of childhood cancer will be diagnosed in 2016 and about 1,250 children ages 0 to 14 are expected to die from childhood cancer in the same period.

Opipari also said there is a need for more funding in pediatric cancer research and treatment.

“The second thing we wanted people to understand is how little funding goes to the study and research in childhood cancers,” Opipari said. 

A majority of cancers are typically associated with advancing age. However, Steven Pipe, a pediatric hematologist and oncologist at Mott, said some of the most exciting advances in cancer research are occurring in the pediatric realm. Both the University and Wisconsin, which are ranked second and fourth, respectively, for total research and development expenditures in 2014 by the National Science Foundation, are at the leading edge of this fight against childhood cancer, he added.

“I’ve been working (at Mott) for almost 25 years and I can see us for the first time really making major headway with some of the more difficult to treat pediatric malignancies,” Pipe said.

He highlighted two breakthroughs in particular being pioneered at Mott: precision oncology and immunotherapy. In precision oncology, doctors comb through a patient’s DNA to identify mutations in their tumor, which can then be matched to specific therapies. The immunotherapy approach, on the other hand, leverages the patient’s own immune system. Both of these methods are part of a larger movement away from nonspecific treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, to methods tailored to the patient’s own unique cancer.

A team of Mott researchers led by Rajen Mody, professor of pediatric oncology and hematology at the University, published a paper in late 2015 showing the results from the first 102 patients enrolled in a precision oncology study at the hospital. In 46 percent of the patients, genetic sequencing revealed new targets for therapies and several children were believed to have been cured of their cancers, according to Opipari.

“We now have a clinic at Michigan, a personalized pediatric cancer clinic, where patients are coming from all over the country to participate in our sequencing trial,” Opipari said.

The University has had a long history of participating in cross-campus partnerships to advance various health initiatives. The annual Ohio State-Michigan Blood Battle, for example, began in 1982, with last year’s battle bringing in a total of 4,770 blood donations. In 2003, students began another tradition, the Face-Off Blood Challenge, with in-state rival Michigan State University.

Opipari said if this year goes well, the hospital would like to explore expanding the competition.

“The big goal is that if this works, what we’d like to do is to make this a Big Ten wide challenge,” Opipari said. “We’d like every one of the Big Ten teams to get onboard as Michigan and Wisconsin have started the charge.”


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