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Massey research member awarded competitive grant renewal from NIH

Aug 30, 2022

 Devanand Sarkar, MBBS, Ph.D.

Devanand Sarkar, M.B.B.S., Ph.D., associate director for training and education at VCU Massey Cancer Center and associate director at the VCU Institute for Molecular Medicine (VIMM), received a competitive grant renewal to continue his study of understanding the molecular mechanism and developing targeted therapies to improve outcomes for patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).

Sarkar, who holds the Harrison Foundation Distinguished Professorship in Cancer Research at Massey, received an R01 grant totaling $2.4 million over four years from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIH/NIDDK).

According to Sarkar, a major risk factor for HCC is fatty liver disease also known as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which develops as a consequence of obesity . HCC is the sixth most common cancer and third leading cause of death from cancer worldwide.

“Obesity-induced liver cancer is one of the major global health problems right now,” said Sarkar. “A lot of our research is focused on molecules that regulate these processes, starting from the fatty liver state all the way up to the cancer. What we study in the lab are novel genes that regulate it. Very little is known about these genes, especially in the disease processes, so we unravel the mechanism by which these molecules work.”

The grant funds Sarkar’s proposal aimed at analyzing the role of AEG-1 in NASH and HCC, interrogating cysteine palmitoylation as a regulatory mechanism for AEG-1 function, and evaluating inhibition of AEG-1 as a therapeutic strategy for NASH and NASH-HCC.

“Right now, we are studying a lot of approaches in preclinical models with the hope that in the next few years we can move into clinical trials,” Sarkar explained. “By the time I retire, probably I will see something that we have taken from the bench all the way to the patients.”

The NIH/NIDDK award started on April 1, 2022; the principal investigator is Sarkar, who is also a VCU School of Medicine professor of human and molecular genetics. 

Co-investigators from VCU are Arun J. Sanyal, M.D., director of the Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health; and Mikhail Dozmorov, Ph.D., associate professor of Biostatistics.

Other members of the research team are Aliasger Salem, Ph.D., from University of Iowa, and Hening Lin, Ph.D., from Cornell University.

“Once we get sufficient data, the next step is seeing if it is safe and effective. Then we will go to the FDA and start a trial. We still have work to do,” said Sarkar. “But over the last almost ten years, there has definitely been a significant advancement in not only our understanding of this cancer in general but also developing new tools that can effectively fight it.”

Sarkar discussed his grant renewal and career path in an interview with participants of the Walter Lawrence Scholars Initiative (WLSI), a six-week internship Massey launched in July 2022 to cultivate career opportunities for diverse populations interested in writing, reviewing, and evaluating cancer-relevant scientific writing and communications. The program’s namesake is Walter Lawrence, M.D., the first Massey director, who fought repeatedly for social justice and health equity in his life and career as a surgical oncologist.

Written by: Amy Lacey

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