UTHealth's innovative cancer-fighting projects receive $11 million CPRIT funding

Five innovative cancer-fighting projects at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) received just over $11 million during the latest round of grants awarded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

Four of the grants were awarded to scientists at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth for research and a fifth to an investigator at UTHealth School of Public Health for prevention.

To date, UTHealth has received 63 CPRIT grants for a combined $94.5 million with $79.5 million going for academic research and $15 million for prevention.

It is no exaggeration to say that basic, curiosity-driven research underpins all major advances in cancer treatment."

John F. Hancock, MB, BChir, PhD, vice dean of basic research and John S. Dunn Distinguished University Chair in Physiology and Medicine at McGovern Medical School

"We have to understand the basic biology of cancer cells in order to be able to figure out novel ways of stopping them from growing or forming tumors. This is recognized by CPRIT, which allocates a substantial fraction of its very generous funding to Texas scientists at the forefront of fundamental cancer research," he said.

This year, the American Cancer Society estimates that 124,890 people in Texas will be diagnosed with cancer and 41,300 will die.

Zhiqiang An, PhD, and Qingyun "Jim" Liu, PhD, with the Texas Therapeutics Institute at McGovern Medical School received grants of $5.9 million and $2 million, respectively, to fast-track the development of targeted cancer treatments. An is the Robert A. Welch Distinguished University Chair in Chemistry and Liu is the Janice Davis Gordon Chair for Bowel Cancer Research at UTHealth.

An's Core Facility Support Award will create a second core facility at UTHealth to support the work of researchers targeting cancer at the molecular level and to make sure investigators have access to the most up-to-date technologies. It will focus on advanced antibody drug modalities, including using patients' immune cells to treat their own cancers

His first core facility was funded in 2015 to help scientists develop therapeutic antibodies. These are naturally occurring proteins that can be engineered to seek out cancer cells and deliver a payload of medication.

Liu's Early Translational Research Award is for researching the use of therapeutic antibodies to treat liver cancer, which claims the lives of an estimated 2,500 Texans a year.

"The specific goals of this project are to create drug candidates that are highly potent and efficacious," said Liu, noting that he will be testing a protein called a peptibody in animal models of cancers of the digestive system.

Alemayehu Gorfe, PhD, associate professor of integrative biology and pharmacology at McGovern Medical School, earned an $897,483 Individual Investigator Award to study a molecular switch called K-Ras.

Mutated versions of K-Ras are found in about 20% of all human cancers in the U.S. and these mutations lock the K-Ras switch in the "on" position, causing cells to potentially become cancerous. Gorfe's research is designed to inhibit mutated versions of the switch.

Leng Han, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at McGovern Medical School and CPRIT Scholar, was awarded a $200,000 High Impact High Risk Grant to explore why problems in the translation of genes to proteins can sometimes lead to cancer.

In particular, his research will focus on transfer ribonucleic acid, which plays a key role in the translation process. "The expected outcome of this project is to build a comprehensive data resource to explore the expression landscape and biomedical significance of transfer ribonucleic acid," Han said.

McGovern Medical School Associate Professor Ningyan Zhang, PhD, is a co-investigator on An's grant and a co-principal investigator on a CPRIT grant awarded to Kathryn O'Donnell-Mendell, PhD, of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Assistant Professor Kendra Carmon, PhD, is a co-principal investigator on Liu's grant.

Hancock, Han, An, Liu, Carmon, and Gorfe are on the faculty of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

At UTHealth School of Public Health, Lara Savas, PhD, assistant professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences, earned a $2 million award. Called the Expansion of Cancer Prevention Services to Rural and Medically Underserved Populations Grant, the purpose is to support delivery of an evidence-based cancer prevention program, Salud en Mis Manos (Health in My Hands).

This community- and clinic-based program addresses Latinas' complex barriers to breast and cervical cancer screening and HPV vaccination.

On Savas' grant, Paula Cuccaro, PhD, assistant professor, is a co-principal investigator, and Maria E. Fernandez, PhD, and Melissa Valerio, PhD, MPH, associate professor, are co-investigators. Fernandez is the Lorne Bain Distinguished Professor in Public Health and Medicine at UTHealth. Emily Adlparvar, MPH, research coordinator, is the project coordinator.

In 2007, Texas voters passed a constitutional amendment to create CPRIT and authorized it to issue $3 billion in bonds to fund groundbreaking cancer research and prevention programs and services in the Lone Star State.

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