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Massey awards new round of pilot grants for early-career cancer investigators

Sep 23, 2022

image_of_grant_awardees From left to right: Eddie Chae, Ph.D., Elizabeth Krieger, M.D., Teresa Salgado, MPharm, Ph.D., Jie Shen, Ph.D., and Katherine Tossas, Ph.D., M.S.

VCU Massey Cancer Center recently awarded a total of $200,000 to five early-career cancer researchers through its Institutional Research Grant (IRG) from the American Cancer Society (ACS) – a program that has been providing seed money to junior investigators at the university for nearly 50 years.

The grant was renewed by ACS in 2021 and totals $300,000 over the course of three years. A committee of faculty members at Massey allocates $30,000 to each investigator from this sum 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). In addition to the $30,000 provided through the grant, Massey has also contributed an extra $10,000 per researcher, for a total of $40,000 in research funding granted to each awardee this year.

“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., member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program at Massey and professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the VCU School of Medicine, has served as the ACS-IRG grant’s principal investigator for more than 15 years and leads the review committee at Massey.

This year’s grant awardees are Eddie Chae, Ph.D., Elizabeth Krieger, M.D., Teresa Salgado, MPharm, Ph.D., Jie Shen, Ph.D., and Katherine Tossas, Ph.D., M.S., each with their own research mission for a future without cancer.

Both Shen and Tossas were previously funded for their research but received additional funding through the ACS-IRG to continue their work after each demonstrated significant success in their projects.

Eddie Chae, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Biology research program at Massey and assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the VCU SOM and Philips Institute for Oral Health Research at the VCU School of Dentistry, will use his funding to investigate novel immunotherapeutic strategies for the treatment of head and neck (HN) cancer. Natural killer (NK) cells are a type of immune cell that can play an important function in fending off cancer. Chae will use this grant to better understand the role of NK cells in thwarting the growth of HN cancer, as well as to learn how an abundance of the DKK1 protein serves to inhibit the function of NK cells and promotes the spread of HN cancer.

Elizabeth Krieger, M.D., pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Massey and the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, hopes to improve stem cell transplantation treatment options for leukemia patients. A transfusion of cells collected from a donor — called donor lymphocyte infusion (DLI) – is often a successful form of treatment for patients whose leukemia has returned following a stem cell transplant. However, doctors don’t have a full understanding of who will benefit from this type of infusion. Krieger will use her grant funding to measure different aspects of cancer-fighting immune cells in donors prior to DLI and in patients following DLI to better predict which patients will benefit from this procedure, as well as to develop more effective treatment strategies for the future.

Teresa Salgado, MPharm, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacotherapy and
Outcomes Science at the VCU School of Pharmacy, is using her grant funding to develop two instruments. The first is called best-worst scaling (BWS), and it will help to identify what information is needed by metastatic breast cancer patients experiencing chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy and help quantify the relative influence of different information topics on treatment alteration decisions. The second instrument is a threshold technique that will quantify the maximum CIPN severity that patients are willing to tolerate in exchange for the benefit of progression-free survival. Her research team will involve both patients and clinicians to better inform the development of these instruments.

Jie Shen, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at Massey and assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology at the VCU SOM, is using her grant funding to examine how chronic stress contributes to breast cancer disparities in Black women. Higher exposure to stress is associated with poor breast cancer outcomes, and Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at an advanced stage. Shen studies how neighborhood disadvantage correlates to stress, biological aging and breast cancer outcomes, to determine if these associations differ between Black women and white women. The goal of the research project is to help achieve greater health equity for all women.

Katherine Tossas, Ph.D., M.S., director for catchment area data access and alignment and member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at Massey, studies how vaginal microbes influence the progression of HPV infection and development of cervical cancer. There are hundreds of types of HPV, and some are more common and more cancerous in non-Latina Black women than non-Latina white women. Tossas is analyzing how genetic alterations correlate to changes in vaginal microbes and determining if this may be a contributing factor to increased risk of cervical lesions among non-Latina Black women. Findings from this grant-funded research could inform adjustments in clinical decision-making during cervical cancer screenings, as well as identify potential targets in the treatment of HPV.

Written by: Blake Belden

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