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Pilot grants for early-career cancer researchers draw record applicants

Nov 09, 2021

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VCU Massey Cancer Center recently renewed its Institutional Research Grant (IRG) from the American Cancer Society(ACS) – a program that has been providing seed money to early-career cancer researchers at VCU for nearly 50 years. 

The grant totals $300,000 over the course of three years. A committee of faculty members at Massey doles out $30,000 from this pot at a time to help junior faculty generate pilot data, which can then be used to apply for a larger grant, such as an R01 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“This is a really important award,” said Anita Harrison, M.P.A., executive director for research strategy at Massey. “It’s the only award that the cancer center has that’s dedicated entirely to supporting junior investigators. For some, it’s the first grant they’ve written after starting their own independent labs. A significant number of people launch their academic careers with an ACS-IRG pilot grant, not just at Massey, but across the country.”

David Gewirtz, Ph.D., has served as the ACS-IRG grant’s principal investigator for the last 15 years and leads the review committee. During this cycle, the program received a record-high 17 applications and funded six research projects. The grant only had enough money to cover five projects, but all six of the winners were considered so deserving of support that Massey kicked in additional funds to cover the gap. 

“Overall, it was a unique combination of very competitive proposals,” said Gewirtz, a member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program at Massey and professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the VCU School of Medicine. “We funded investigators across a range of schools and departments. So long as it’s related to cancer, we’re supportive.” 

The winners this cycle are Chunqing Guo, Ph.D.Richard Joh, Ph.D.Sunny Jung Kim, Ph.D.Rebecca Martin, Ph.D.Georgia Thomas, M.D., Ph.D., and Xuewei Wang, Ph.D. Each of them brings a unique perspective and set of skills toward the common goal of making cancer death and suffering a thing of the past.

Using Antibodies to Enhance Cancer Treatment

Guo, who is an assistant professor of human and molecular genetics at the VCU School of Medicine, is investigating how antibodies that block a white blood cell “scavenger” receptor – which despite the name do more than scavenge – might increase the efficacy of immunotherapy or radiation. His team previously found that activating Scavenger Receptor A suppresses anti-tumor T cell responses, and now he’s taking the idea a step closer to the clinic by investigating how blocking this receptor with an antibody might give those helpful immune cells a boost in the fight against cancer.

The Physics of Tumor Dormancy 

Cancer often reemerges years or decades after treatment, but if we knew exactly what leads tumors to go dormant, perhaps we could eradicate them before they jolt back into action. Joh, an assistant professor of experimental biophysics at VCU’s College of Humanities & Sciences, thinks the key might be heterochromatin – DNA so tightly packed that it shuts down gene expression – which is helpful for conserving energy while cells hibernate. Joh’s team will test whether the stiffness of the microenvironment around cells or the disruption of heterochromatin affects dormancy, with an eye toward possible future interventions for dormant cancer, which is notoriously resistant to treatment and a major cause of cancer death. 

How Do Cancer Patients and Providers Feel About Marijuana?

As decriminalization sweeps across the country, Americans are becoming more accepting of marijuana, which some cancer patients say helps with the side effects of treatment. Kim, who is an assistant professor of health behavior and policy at the VCU School of Medicine and a member of Massey’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program, will conduct a large-scale nationwide survey to understand how attitudes around medical marijuana are changing among cancer patients and care providers in states that have legalized the drug versus those that haven’t. Her study also aims to go beyond the anecdotes to get a more comprehensive picture of the purported benefits and risks of cannabis for people with a history of cancer. This will be the largest study of its kind to date, by virtue of new media technologies, such as social media, that facilitate recruitment and engagement.

Searching Out New Targets for Obesity-Related Liver Cancer

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common liver cancer worldwide. Half of patients will die within two years of diagnosis — 90% within five years — making it the second leading cause of cancer death. Patients with high levels of the protein tumor necrosis factor (TNF) tend to fare worse, and this protein has also been implicated in obesity, which is a known cause of HCC. Martin, who is a research member at Massey and an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the VCU School of Medicine, is exploring whether targeting TNF, or molecules regulating it, improve outcomes for mice with obesity-induced HCC.

When Cancer Treatment Leads to Lightheadedness – More at Stake Than Meets the Eye

Bone marrow transplant is the go-to treatment for several cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma and neuroblastoma, but it’s not without side effects. Many patients develop orthostatic intolerance, which involves lightheadedness, fainting and an uncomfortably rapid heartbeat when they go from laying to standing. For an elderly person, that could lead to a fall and a cascading decline in health that’s all too common. Orthostatic intolerance is also linked to cardiovascular disease and cognitive impairment. The project that Thomas, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the VCU School of Medicine, proposed will evaluate patients before and after bone marrow transplant to see who developed orthostatic intolerance, with the goal of identifying at-risk patients and treating them earlier when there’s a greater chance of preserving quality of life.

Engineering Nanoparticles to Track and Attack Tumors

Solid tumors often cause necrosis – where cells die and spew their contents into the surrounding tissue – which is associated with worse survival rates for patients. When cells explode like this, they unleash vast quantities of potassium ions in the vicinity of the tumor, and these ions block the action of cancer-fighting T cells, allowing the tumor to flourish. Wang, who is an assistant professor of chemistry at VCU’s College of Humanities & Sciences, is using his seed money to create nanoparticles that can visualize the potassium concentration around tumors, absorb excess potassium and trigger the release of localized chemotherapy drugs by sensing when and where potassium levels rise. If successful, this will be the first nanoengineering technology that tracks, corrects and harnesses the ionic imbalance around tumors that makes them so deadly.

Looking Ahead

Although this was an especially strong showing and only six projects were funded, Gewirtz was quick to add that everyone who submitted a proposal stands to benefit from the feedback they receive from the committee and the mentorship of senior faculty, which is required for everyone who puts in an application.

In future award cycles, Massey has pledged to kick in an additional $10,000 for each funded proposal, bringing the total for each pilot project to $40,000.

The next call for ACS-IRG submissions will come in early 2022, with awards made in March.

Written by: Erin Hare

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