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Annual Massey Research Retreat draws record turnout

May 28, 2014


On Friday, May 23, the annual Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Massey Cancer Center Research Retreat attracted more than 150 attendees to learn about the most promising cancer research being conducted at Massey and throughout VCU. The event was split into morning and afternoon sessions. The morning session featured lectures from Massey research program members and keynote speakers William C. Hahn, M.D., Ph.D., and Deborah Schrag, M.D., M.P.H., from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. After lunch, a poster session provided student researchers and postdoctoral fellows an opportunity to showcase their research contributions and compete for up to $250 in Excellence in Cancer Research Awards.

Research presentations

There was standing room only as the morning lectures got underway in the Molecular Medicine Research Building. Following opening remarks from VCU Massey Cancer Center Director Gordon Ginder, M.D., Iain Morgan, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at Massey and director of the Philips Institute for Oral Health Research, presented on his studies involving the human papillomavirus (HPV). Specifically, Morgan discussed highlights from his research showing unique interactions between HPV and its host that could potentially be exploited to halt the replication of the virus.

Following Morgan, Barbara Boyan, Ph.D., a non-aligned research program member at Massey and dean of the VCU School of Engineering, gave a presentation that revealed many of the mechanisms involved in estrogen dependent metastases of ER negative breast cancer cells to the bone. By better understanding the biology involved in the growth and spread of ER negative breast cancer, Boyan and her colleagues hope to provide new targets for the development of therapies that can prevent primary tumor progression as well as metastasis.

The first Frank D. Pendleton Memorial Lecture was given by Hahn, chief of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Oncology and deputy chief scientific officer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Hahn’s presentation highlighted his work in functional cancer genomics, which uses genetic sequencing to systematically identify vulnerabilities in various cancers. This knowledge has allowed Hahn and his colleagues to develop new experimental models of human cancer cells, which has led to the discovery of several new oncogenes and provides a framework for the development of new targeted therapies.

Shin-Ping Tu, M.D., M.P.H., member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at Massey and chair of the Division of General Internal Medicine at the VCU School of Medicine, presented on implementing colorectal cancer screenings in busy primary care practices. She discussed her efforts leading a survey of community health centers in seven states that aimed to identify the factors that made some centers more flexible at incorporating new practices during times of change. The data collected in this research highlighted best practices in primary care delivery that could help inform efforts to improve colorectal cancer screenings.

The morning session concluded with the second Frank D. Pendleton Memorial Lecture given by Schrag, attending physician at the Center for Gastrointestinal Oncology and chief of the Division of Population Sciences at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Schrag presented on strategies to maximize value in advanced cancer care—a pressing need given the rising costs of cancer care in the U.S. During the lecture, Schrag outlined drivers of cancer care costs and discussed factors, such as inappropriate use of technologies, demand for non-evidence-based services and unrealistic expectations sparked by novel cancer therapies that have not yet delivered major improvements in cancer care, that could be curbed through careful policy decisions.

From left to right: Gordon Ginder, M.D., Jeremy Meier, Siddharth Saini, Jolene Windle, Ph.D.

Poster session and Excellence in Cancer Research Awards

The poster session at Massey’s Research Retreat is an opportunity for students in graduate level programs throughout VCU and postdoctoral fellows to display their contributions to cancer research and compete for Excellence in Cancer Research Awards totaling $250 for first place, $200 for second place and $150 for third place. A panel of Massey judges reviewed each of the 66 abstracts displayed on the 11th and 12th floors of the McGlothlin Medical Education Center.

This year’s first-place winner was Nirmita Patel, a postdoctoral research fellow at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center. Patel’s research focused on the potential to target colorectal cancer stem cells by interfering with the function of glycosaminoglycans (GAG), which play a key role in cancer cell growth, invasion and metastasis. Patel and her colleagues screened 74 novel GAG mimetics, which are synthetic molecules that mimic the structure of GAGs, against colorectal cancer stem cells. Her group identified a subgroup of GAGs that displayed profound activity against the cancer stem cells, and they plan to further explore the development of novel colorectal cancer therapies using this subgroup of GAGs.

Second place was awarded to Siddharth Saini, a fellow in the Division of Hematology, Oncology and Palliative Care in the Department of Internal Medicine at the VCU School of Medicine. Saini and his colleagues discovered that a lipid normally found in the blood, lysophosphatidic acid (LPA), plays a key role in a cell signaling process that promotes ovarian cancer cell proliferation. By further characterizing the signaling from LPA receptors, Saini hopes he can identify novel clinical markers and targets for the development of new therapies.

Jeremy Meier, a student in the M.D.-Ph.D. Program at the VCU School of Medicine, took third place for his research investigating the connection between a tumor-promoting gene known as STAT3 and cyclophilin D, a protein located in the mitochondria that helps regulate the permeability of the mitochondrial inner membrane. Meier and his fellow researchers believe that this interaction could play a key role in cancer cell resistance to therapy, and they hope to further explore the relationship between STAT3 and cyclophilin D in hopes of finding new targets that could improve cancer therapies. 

Written by: John Wallace

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