Published on February 9, 2024
Dr. Brandon Gheller was in awe as he watched speedrunners blast their way through video games during his January visit to Awesome Games Done Quick (AGDQ) in Pittsburgh.
“It’s unbelievable how bad I am at video games,” he said. “Growing up I thought I was pretty good, but it’s pretty unbelievable to watch people at the top of their game literally be able to do things this quickly and build a community [around it].”
But Gheller’s visit to AGDQ was for more than just watching the speedruns in awe. He wanted to show his support for the event that raised more than $2.5 million so that researchers like himself can fund their cancer prevention and early detection projects.
Gheller, a research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, said one thing that makes AGDQ’s fundraising so unique is that it focuses on the prevention and early detection side of cancer, as opposed to the treatment.
“The funding makes an unbelievable amount of difference. It’s coming from a foundation that believes in preventing cancer, which keeps researchers who want to focus on preventing cancer versus treating cancer, in the game.”
Gheller explained in detail the cancer prevention efforts that AGDQ supports.
“We work on a disorder called clonal hematopoiesis. In the past 10 years, we’ve come to understand that 4% of all people have a change in their DNA and one of the stem cells that makes all the blood in their body. What happens is when you take on this change in DNA, that predisposes you to cancer. So this one stem cell starts to make more and more blood within your body, which can lead to things like leukemia, it can also lead to things like heart disease,” he explained. “So, what I’m personally doing is finding a way that we can stop these mutant or DNA change stem cells from growing in individuals and starting cancer.”
He also detailed his research process.
“We use the zebrafish— a very small, tropical fish. We’re able to perfectly [replicate] what you see in a human in the fish. So now you can start to build interventions and test them on the fish,” he said. “And because this disorder isn’t cancer by nature, you don’t want to treat it with a drug, you’re able to treat healthy people who just might have this change in DNA.” “It’s an unbelievably exciting area to be in. We’ve only really known about this disorder because of advances in technology for 12 years. I already have research indicating that there’s a metabolic pathway that can be shut down to stop this disorder. It’s currently working in the zebrafish, it’s also working in human cells. [This progress] is really remarkable in this field,” he said.
Gheller says the impact of the money AGDQ raised in 2024 would be felt for decades to come.
“Getting that funding and putting it toward preventing cancer – it’s something that we all believe can really have a huge effect on the field for the next 40, 50 years,” he said.
The Prevent Cancer Foundation awards research grants and fellowships to promising early- career scientists with novel hypotheses for prevention and early detection. To learn more about Dr. Gheller’s work and other Foundation-funded researchers, visit preventcancer.org/research.