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Jatinder Lamba, Ph.D., M.Sc., led a team of researchers who developed a new genetic score to improve pediatric cancer treatments.

University of Florida researchers have developed a new genomics-based score to deliver more personalized and effective chemotherapy treatments to pediatric leukemia patients.

The predictive score brings a precision medicine approach to treating childhood acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a common form of childhood leukemia.

AML spreads rapidly and affects the bone marrow and blood. The chemotherapy drug cytarabine has been a mainstay of AML treatment for more than 50 years. However, it fails to induce remission in about 10-15% of children, and another 40% will relapse after achieving remission.

In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, one of the top journals in the field, UF researchers outlined how they developed a patient-specific polygenic score to improve treatment outcomes. The score was generated by performing a comprehensive pharmacogenomic evaluation of cytarabine’s drug pathway in the body and predicting how much of the drug is activated in a cell.

“Cytarabine must be activated to effectively kill leukemia cells, but the amount of activation varies based on an individual’s genetics,” said Jatinder Lamba, Ph.D., M.Sc., the study’s lead author and a professor of pharmacotherapy and translational research in the UF College of Pharmacy, a part of UF Health, the university’s academic health center. “We anticipated our score would predict the outcome — and it did — but what was really interesting is that we were able to show if the patient had a low, or detrimental score, the outcome could be improved by augmenting the patient’s therapy.”

The study included more than 1,000 pediatric cancer patients treated through multisite clinical trials at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Children’s Oncology Group. It suggested patients with a low polygenic score would benefit from increased dosing of cytarabine or additional targeted therapies in their chemotherapy regimen. Meanwhile, patients with a high score may benefit from a less-intensive chemotherapy regimen — avoiding some of the toxicity associated with cytarabine.

“With this score, we can genetically define those patients who would benefit from intensifying the chemotherapy or adding a new cancer drug to the regimen and on the other side of the spectrum having their chemotherapy reduced to avoid toxicity,” Lamba said. “The score gives clinicians a new tool to devise an effective treatment strategy and deliver the best possible outcome to AML patients. It also has the potential to improve the guidelines for delivering AML chemotherapy.”

Another key finding in the study involved the role race and ethnicity play in generating the predictive score. UF researchers found the high score significantly differed by race, with 70% of white patients and only 30% of Black patients having a beneficial score. The study’s results suggest the polygenic score could be one of the underlying contributors to observed racial disparities in AML patient outcomes and may have the potential to reduce the observed racial disparities by optimizing treatment.

Lamba, the Frank A. Duckworth Eminent Scholar Chair in the UF College of Pharmacy and a member of the UF Health Cancer Center, said further exploration is needed to determine whether Black patients would benefit from a higher dose of cytarabine or additional drugs in their chemotherapy regimen.

“This study opens opportunities for examining how race and ethnicity impact AML patient response to cancer treatments,” Lamba said. “We need to be more conscious of racial disparities in cancer care and continue to investigate why we are seeing different outcomes by race.”

Lamba has joined a consortium of researchers in Africa studying racial disparities in cancer treatment. She expects the collaboration will create new opportunities for studying drug response in Black patients and allow for further research involving the new scoring model.

“Dr. Lamba’s innovative research program explores hidden genetic complexity behind response to therapy and serves as a cautionary lesson to all cancer researchers to enroll robust numbers of diverse individuals in clinical trials, in order to elucidate and address disparities,” said Jonathan Licht, M.D., director of the UF Health Cancer Center. “This is a theme embraced across all UF Health Cancer Center research programs.”

The study “Polygenic Ara-C Response Score Identifies Pediatric Patients With Acute Myeloid Leukemia in Need of Chemotherapy Augmentation,” was published Jan. 6 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Multiple investigators from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Children’s Oncology Group, Tennessee Health Sciences Center, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Children’s Mercy Hospital, Nemours Children’s Health and the University of Florida contributed to the study.

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GAINESVILLE – Over 45,000 pounds of peanut butter have now been sent out to local food banks statewide following the 2021 Peanut Butter Challenge, an effort led by the Cooperative Extension offices of UF/IFAS and Florida A&M University (FAMU) in partnership with local organizations.

The annual jar collection began in the Florida Panhandle counties in 2012 as a way to combat food insecurity with a shelf-stable product while also highlighting the peanut’s Florida-grown roots. The effort expanded statewide in 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when an estimated one in 10 Floridians faced food insecurity, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Participating offices rely on grassroots community support to collect jars of peanut butter from Oct. 1 until the day before Thanksgiving, after which they’re counted, bragging rights are awarded, and the jars are delivered locally.

By the numbers:

  • 45,157 total poundage collected
  • 35,109 total jars collected

This year’s Peanut Butter Challenge community collection alone can make over 700,000 peanut butter sandwiches! Fifty-five competitors accepted the 2021 challenge, including FAMU’s first entry and a UF campus collection for the campus food bank, the Alan and Cathy Hitchcock Field & Fork Pantry.

Many of the newcomers seemed to hit their stride, as totals increased 18,000 pounds over the first statewide competition. The top overall community collector of 2021 earned the title in only its second attempt: Levy County amassed 6,954 jars for a whopping 7,120 pounds.

“Our success this year is all thanks to our community, from the local school collections to an incredible donation from the Levy County Farm Bureau, Williston Peanut and Peanut Proud,” said Kristen Brault, who coordinated the UF/IFAS Extension Levy County collection. “We grow and process a lot of peanuts here in Levy County, and it’s rewarding to be able to give these jars right back to food banks, big and small, across our county.”

Madison County brought in an impressive haul, as well, at 6,807 pounds; other top performers include regional champions Jefferson County (Northwest, 2,237 pounds), Hardee County (Southwest, 2,000 pounds), Hernando County (Central, 1,731 pounds) and Indian River County (Southeast, 1,185 pounds).

In addition to engaging local communities, the Peanut Butter Challenge has partnered with the Florida Peanut Producers Association (FPPA) and Florida Peanut Federation (FPF) for years. These organizations, based in the northwest and northeast peanut-producing regions of the state, also contribute pallets of the nutrient-dense spread to the totals distributed to food pantries in those regions. Peanut production contributed $119 million to the state economy in 2019, according to the Florida Agricultural Statistics Service.

“The Peanut Butter Challenge makes such a simple ask – donating a jar of peanut butter – but our communities always respond in a big way,” said Libbie Johnson, UF/IFAS Extension Escambia County agriculture agent and co-organizer of the Challenge since its inception. “It’s exciting to be able to share so much of this nutritious, Florida-grown product with our neighbors who may be struggling. Thank you to everyone who donated a jar to the cause this year.”

County coordinators of the Peanut Butter Challenge also shared some success stories:

  • Bay County: A. Gary Walsingham Academy collected 167 jars totaling 231 pounds.
  • Calhoun County (collection in featured image, courtesy of Claire Reach): Local peanut farmer and FPPA board member Joe Tillman served as the county’s 2021 Peanut Butter Challenge Ambassador, providing a whole case of peanut butter for the first donation of the season. A large portion of the donations came from a competition within the Calhoun County school system, with all of Carr School and a few classes from Altha Public School engaging in friendly competition that added up to a total of 498 jars for 607 pounds for the county.
  • Escambia County: Delivering peanut butter was a community effort, with help from two local farmers and a Master Gardener Volunteer. Representative Michelle Salzman and a local Girl Scout group delivered almost 100 jars to the Extension office. The office also had help from Commissioner Steven Barry and his daughter in kicking off the event.
  • FAMU: The peanut butter was distributed to help shelves in the Tallahassee area, the FAMU campus pantry, and to local Title 1 Schools for the backpack program that sends food home with kids who need it.
  • Franklin County: Maddison Whitten, a student in the Franklin County High School National Honor Society chapter, chose to lead a service project to contribute to the Peanut Butter Challenge. The school engaged in some friendly competition and collected over 800 jars of peanut butter for 1,004 pounds.
  • Gulf County: Commissioner David Rich donated the first jar of the 2021 collection.
  • Hernando County: Two brand new elementary school 4-H clubs used one of their first projects to design a marketing campaign to collect peanut butter in their school. They set a first-year goal of 500 jars. Using posters, word of mouth and visiting some local stores, the Pine Grove Cubs and Cloverbuds collected 700 jars of peanut butter totaling 777.75 pounds. In another mini-competition, the county government departments competed for the traveling peanut trophy. Each year, the winning department’s name will be engraved; in 2021, it’s the Hernando County Utilities Department.
  • Indian River County: The county not only took in donations from the community at large, but 4-H clubs got involved in a friendly competition as well! A local citrus company donated coupons for ice cream at their farm store to the winning club. One club donated 265 pounds, with the runner-up club receiving 258 pounds. Overall, they raised five times more than last year.
  • Jackson County: 4-H’er Blair brought in the first donation of the 2021 competition.
  • Jefferson County: The Jefferson County Somerset Charter School donated 925 pounds of peanut butter. Mrs. Barrington’s class donated 386 pounds of peanut butter.
  • Lafayette County: A local 4-H’er, whose family also grows peanuts, served as the county’s 2021 Peanut Butter Challenge Ambassador and delivered its first jar.
  • Madison County: An impressive 1,450.7 pounds of the collection came from one school with just 300 students.
  • Martin County: The county also got one jar of jelly donated. The donor said, “You can’t have peanut butter without jelly,” as they dropped it off.
  • Nassau County: County Commissioner Thomas Ford stopped by with the first peanut butter donation.
  • Okaloosa County: Sheila Fitzgerald, Okaloosa County deputy administrator, donated the first three jars to its 2021 collection.
  • Orange County: A friendly 4-H competition gathered 384 jars for 650 pounds, and then members and staff helped to deliver the jars to three local organizations.
  • Polk County: 180 pounds of peanut butter went to the Florida Dream Center.
  • UF campus: The Alan and Cathy Hitchcock Field & Fork Pantry was out of peanut butter prior to the competition’s close, but donations were made available when the need arose. Over 250 pounds of the spread went to feed campus community members in need.
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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ Alachua County’s Animal Resources and Care (formerly Animal Services) has documented at least two dogs infected with the canine distemper virus. The remaining dogs in the shelter are now in quarantine for at least four weeks as they are monitored for infection. A proactive response plan has been developed to maximize lifesaving and minimize further spread of the virus. Updates will be provided as more information becomes available.

The shelter is closed for dog adoptions and is not accepting owner surrendered dogs during this quarantine period. Un-owned dogs and dogs that are a risk to public safety that must be brought into the shelter are being housed in a separate area from the quarantined population.

This situation indicates that canine distemper virus is circulating in the community. The virus is carried by local wildlife including raccoons, foxes, skunks and coyotes. That coupled with a large population of unvaccinated or under-vaccinated dogs that have exposure to wildlife, or areas frequented by wildlife, causes strays and dogs allowed to run at large to contract the virus and bring it with them to the shelter.

In accordance with Animal Resources and Care standard operating procedures, each animal is vaccinated upon admission to the facility. But if the animal has not previously been vaccinated, it can take up to two weeks before any significant immunity to such viruses is achieved. Research suggests that puppies under six months of age are at the greatest risk and will have the lowest chance of survival if infected, but unvaccinated dogs of any age are in danger.

Animal Resources and Care personnel suggest the best course of action is to allow your veterinarian to administer an annual vaccination protocol, beginning at six weeks of age for puppies, that will include protection against distemper.

Cats are not at risk for infection by canine distemper virus and the shelter will remain open for cat adoptions.

Animal Resources and Care respectfully asks for the public’s patience as they deal with this problem. If you pick up a stray dog, please notify them so they can document it, check against their lost reports and arrange for it to be scanned for a microchip. If you can foster it for a few days or more until its owner(s) can be found, please let them know. If that is not possible, ask your friends and family if they would be willing to do so. Other nearby shelter and rescue groups may also be able to assist you.

For more information regarding these and other options, contact Animal Resources and Care at 352-264-6870. During this time the shelter will continue to open Tuesday through Saturday 10:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., excluding holidays, for cat adoptions, license renewals and to answer questions. Meanwhile, say Animal Resources and Care personnel, the field operations team will continue to respond to matters affecting public safety and animals in immediate danger 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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Gainesville, Florida – Santa Fe College’s Institute of Public Safety will host a special training on human trafficking for law enforcement officers and support staff Thursday, Jan. 20, from noon until 5 p.m. The training, timed to observe January being Human Trafficking Prevention Month, is being provided by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC). 

This program introduces current indicators for human trafficking, as well as an overview of federal statutes and applicable state law related to trafficking. It is oriented with case studies, videos and student-centered learning activities, followed by a panel discussion with state, local, and federal law enforcement subject matter experts. Special guests include Assistant United States Attorney, Northern District of Florida Frank Williams, Human Trafficking Coordinator.  

This course is being held locally, in part because of efforts from federal elected officials dedicated to fighting human trafficking in the community and nationally. Florida ranks third in most human trafficking cases, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, behind only California and Texas. To learn more about efforts you can take to increase awareness or learn more about human trafficking in North Central Florida visit the North Central Florida Human Trafficking Task Force Facebook page.  

Although this class is focused on the Florida law enforcement community, all are welcome to attend. There is no cost to attend however space is limited. Please click the link to register for this training. 

In addition to this training, Santa Fe College also recently released a special podcast – Human Trafficking: Global Issue, Local Impact – in which SF professor Richard Tovar talks about the global problem of human trafficking and recalls the early days of founding the non-profit organization Fight Injustice and Global Human Trafficking (FIGHT). The podcast can be accessed at sfcollege.edu/listen

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GAINESVILLE ‒ The public is invited to the Sunshine State Book Festival, to be held Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 29-30, in Gainesville.

This annual event brings readers and writers together. No reservations or tickets required. Saturday’s festival takes place in the Oaks Mall on West Newberry Road near I-75. It runs from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Attendees will have an opportunity to meet and engage with 100 authors, purchase books and have them signed. There will also be hourly drawings for free books. Bring the kids or grandkids. They will enjoy the children’s area with storytellers and activities.

Sunday’s program will take place at the Matheson History Museum, 513 E. University Avenue in downtown Gainesville from 1 – 5 p.m. Attendees will enjoy four presentations by well-known authors. The festival is sponsored by the Writers Alliance of Gainesville.

For full details, visit SunshineStateBookFestival.com. Since the festival is completely indoors, it will be held rain or shine.

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ALACHUA COUNTY, FL - Alachua County Fire Rescue (ACFR) is proud to announce the addition of a 24-hour Rescue Unit. This rescue unit is an Advanced Life Support (ALS) ambulance equipped with life-saving medical equipment. It is staffed with at least one State of Florida Certified Paramedic and one State of Florida Certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). This unit will join the other 14 24-hour rescue units and five 13-hour Peak Load Rescue Units in responding to over 45,000 incidents per year in Alachua County. The County plans to place a 16th 24-hour Rescue Unit into service later this year.
 
The unit will be designated as Rescue 36 and will be placed into service on Monday, January 17, 2022, at 8 a.m. Rescue 36 will be located at 4000 SW 20th Avenue in Gainesville.
 
“We are excited to place this unit into full-time service, which will assist us in addressing the increase in service call requests, and I am pleased that the County Commission along with County Management staff recognizes and supports the needs of public safety,” said ACFR Chief Harold Theus. “This unit will not only assist in responses, but it will also assist us in offsetting the high workload demand our rescue crews experience.”

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ Every Wednesday a group of volunteers gathers at the High Springs Farmer's Market to distribute food to those in need. Known as the High Springs Mobile Pantry, the group of 20 volunteers pass out fresh meat, vegetables, fruit and bread to residents waiting in a long line of cars. Volunteers are a diverse group from various churches, residents who want to help, and even individuals who, themselves, have been in that line needing food at some point and then deciding to help others in the same situation.

“The volunteers that distribute the food are very dedicated to helping others and many of them know what it feels like to be in that situation because they have been in need at some time,” said Mobile Pantry director Anna James.

“Before the COVID pandemic, most of our clients were elderly, living on a small fixed income and would occasionally be in need.,” said James. “Volunteering with the Mobile Pantry is their way of giving back to the community.”

James started the program 11 years ago when she was working with Fellowship Baptist Church to offer food to those in need. At the time, James also worked with Bread Of The Mighty Food Bank, Inc., a non-profit organization that collects, stores and distributes donated or purchased fresh food. Over 35 years they have built a network of 170 non-profit agency partners with over 500 volunteers such as food pantries, churches, homeless shelters and other organizations that distribute the food to those in need.

James connected the church with Bread of the Mighty and continued the food distribution program. The church and other volunteers would contribute money to help purchase the food and cover expenses. Over the next few years, the program spread beyond the church and James had volunteers from multiple sources.” I couldn't have continued this program without the dedication of the volunteers,” James said.

James was also responsible for getting the City of High Springs involved, providing the Civic Center as a long-term location to have people come and pick up what food they needed.

“We would typically serve about 250 individuals and families each week with about 80 percent of the customers being elderly,” said James. “That was prior to the COVID Pandemic which radically changed everything.” James says that the need for food assistance increased as people lost income, and she saw a large increase in families in dire situations. “I had a number of people who came in reluctantly, claiming they never expected to be in this situation,” said James. “At the height of the Pandemic last year we were distributing food to 2,000 people each week.:

James says numbers are down now, but they are still are averaging 600 to 1,000 people a week and distributing over 35,000 pounds of fresh food.

COVID also changed the way they distributed the food and the location. For health safety they moved it outdoors to maintain social distancing and avoid crowded indoor spaces that could cause cases among volunteers and clients, who already had enough problems without endangering their health.

“Our mission is to help those in need, not jeopardize the,” said James. “The city offered us the Farmers Market where we could have cars drive by and put the food in their trunks to keep everyone safe.”

This method has been adopted by many charity food organizations and it works well, so James doesn’t see it reverting back to indoors with close contact.

James adds that despite the huge increase of people in need, they were able to keep up with the demand, thanks to the great efforts by Bread of the Mighty and the people who volunteer with the High Springs Mobile Food Bank. “Their continued dedication to helping others is amazing,” said James. “Even in the worst of the Pandemic they still came every week to distribute the food.”

James believes that everybody deserves to be able to have enough food to feed their families despite their income, and the need is greater than ever. “It's all about helping others,” James said.

The High Springs Mobile Pantry mainly serves High Springs but James says they also go to other communities in the surrounding counties if needed.

The Mobile Pantry is at the High Springs Farmer's Market at 23517 N.W. 185th Road, High Springs, Florida, every Wednesday to distribute food from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. or whenever all the food is gone. More information or to volunteer can be found by visiting their Facebook page — Anna High Springs.

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