James R. Allen is investigating the novel drivers of pediatric leukemia

James Allen James Allen, recipient of a $1.4 million fellowship for his leukemia research, says, “I now can shift into high gear and think deeply and creatively about science.” (Image courtesy of Massachusetts General Hospital)
James R. Allen is investigating the novel drivers of pediatric leukemia

Treatment options are limited for pediatric patients with recurrent T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or T-ALL. James R. Allen, ’11 LAS, is working to understand the cell mechanisms behind the disease’s therapeutic resistance. In recognition of his work, Allen was named a 2020 Hanna H. Gray Fellow by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The fellowship’s $1.4 million, eight-year grant will support his research at Massachusetts General Hospital to uncover the novel drivers of T-ALL and identify pathways that can be targeted by new medications. 

What sparked your interest in studying pediatric cancers and T-ALL specifically?
For my Ph.D., I focused on studying how stem cells behave in the context of regeneration and growth. Leukemia came to my attention because I was very interested in how cancer cells can co-opt or hijack these fundamental developmental programs for their own ends to make the disease more aggressive and drug-resistant.

What hurdles have you encountered?
When the disease relapses, the drugs that initially were able to treat the primary disease are generally unresponsive. Researchers are trying to develop a more complete picture of the genes and pathways that drive drug resistance and enable some of these cells to survive that initial intervention and allow the disease to return. 

What was your reaction when you learned that you were named a Gray Fellow?
I was beyond excited. I think I started dancing in my lab when I found out. I was very inspired that something I’m working on could have a very real impact on human health. I’ve been very fortunate to have supportive mentors, both at U of I and now with Dr. David Langenau at Massachusetts General Hospital, who often have believed in me when I didn’t necessarily believe in myself. So when I learned I was a Hanna Gray fellow, I felt very validated and that I might be on the right track. 

How will this change your life?
The support is invaluable. Often in academia, you have to spend a lot of time figuring out funding sources, which can be stressful. I now don’t have to concern myself with that. I can shift into high gear on my research and have the time to think deeply and creatively about the science, which is my forte.