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Marina Sokolsky, Ph.D.
Marina Sokolsky, Ph.D.

Marina Sokolsky-Papkov, Ph.D., a research assistant professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, is the recipient of a Hero Fund grant from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation to support her research into more effective methods of treating medullosblastoma, the most common malignant brain tumor seen in children.

The St. Baldrick’s Foundation, the largest private funder of childhood cancer research grants, awarded 76 new grants totaling $19.1 million in its summer grant cycle to support research in pediatric cancer.

Medulloblastoma is the most common malignant brain tumor of children. New approaches to treatment are needed, because current treatment can cause brain injury and fails too many patients.

Some medulloblastomas are driven by excessive activity of a signaling pathway called SHH, and for patients with these tumors, SHH-pathway inhibitors may offer new hope, Sokolsky said. She is teaming with a physician-scientist Timothy Gershon, M.D., Ph.D., on the project. Gershon is an associate professor of neurology at the UNC School of Medicine and a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Drugs that target an SHH-pathway protein called SMO work against cancers in other parts of the body, but medulloblastomas have so far been able to become resistant to SMO inhibitors,” Sokolsky said. “We’re taking a two-part approach that we believe will make SMO inhibitors effective against medulloblastoma.”

Sokolsky plans to combine two FDA-approved drugs, vismodegib and palbociclib, that disrupt different points in the pathway that connects SHH signaling to tumor growth. She hopes this will prevent the resistance that the tumor can develop when either drug is administered alone. Her research team has also developed a method of packaging these drugs into tiny particles called nanoparticle micelles, which can increase the amount of drug delivered into brain tumors.

“We hypothesize that the combination of palbociclib and vismodegib, delivered for the first time in nanoparticle micelles, will advance brain tumor treatment and bring new effectiveness to medulloblastoma therapy,” Sokolsky said.

Sokolsky is a research assistant professor in the School’s Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics. She is a member of the School’s Center for Nanotechnology in Drug Delivery and director of the Translational Nanoformulation Core Facility.

To see the research St. Baldrick’s is funding, visit its grants search page. To learn more about each grant category, visit the grant types page on the foundation’s website. The next St. Baldrick’s grant cycle will be announced in the fall.

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