USC project seeks to answer important questions about cancer

Published on October 11, 2012 at 5:04 AM · No Comments

Three groups of University of Southern California (USC) researchers-representing medicine, chemistry and chemical engineering-are recipients of highly competitive grants from the National Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute (NCI). They seek to answer what the NCI considers to be "important but not obvious questions" about cancer, challenging investigators to study the disease in especially effective and imaginative ways.

Some $22 million is being distributed among the first 56 recipients nationwide to be awarded grants through the NCI's Provocative Questions Project. USC received more awards than any other Southern California institution. Two of the university's three awards went to researchers in the Keck School of Medicine of USC, while the third went to researchers from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

For a study to be titled "Epigenetic Drivers of Cancer," Peter Laird, director of the USC Epigenome Center and professor of surgery, biochemistry, and molecular biology at the Keck School, submitted a query that led to an award of more than $2.38 million over four years.

"In contrast to the traditional focus on mutations in the DNA, this grant will enable us to pursue an understanding of the less-often studied epigenetic changes in gene activity-changes in how the cell interprets the DNA," Laird said. "My question is: Can we distinguish between 'driver' and 'passenger' epigenetic events that lead to cancer? If we're able to do that, then we can identify which genes actually help to cause the cancer and develop drugs that attack that defect in the cell."

Joining him as principal investigators of the study are Peter Jones, the Sawyer Chair in Cancer Research and a distinguished professor of urology and biochemistry and molecular biology at the Keck School, and Stephen Baylin, deputy director of The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.

Laird noted that his co-investigators are two of the pioneers in the field of the epigenetics of cancer. In addition, for 17 years, Jones was director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the world's premier institutions for the study of epigenetics.

Darryl Shibata, professor of pathology in the Keck School received more than $220,000 to study "How do NSAIDS [nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs] Prevent Colorectal Cancer?"

Shibata said that several epidemiological studies have shown that in people who take low-dose aspirin for heart health for at least five years, their risk of colon cancer goes down by 10 to 20 percent.

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