Collaborative project gets $20 million to develop new radiopharmaceutical cancer therapies

UT Health Science Center researchers Gabor Tigyi, MD, PhD, Harriet Van Vleet Endowment Professor in Basic Oncology Research, Junming Yue, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Pathology, Sue Chin Lee, PhD, in the Department of Physiology, and David Schwartz, MD, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology, are part of a scientific leadership group awarded $20 million from the University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute (UT-ORII) in partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to develop new radiopharmaceutical therapies to treat cancer.

The grant is the first to UT Health Science Center investigators in collaboration with ORNL and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

We are most grateful to Tennessee's legislature and to our UT President Randy Boyd for supporting UT-ORII and enabling the funding for this exciting cancer initiative, which is good news for our overall research effort, for our cancer research program, and for the people of Tennessee. We are building a bridge to work with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and UT Knoxville, as part of a bigger effort of collaboration across the UT System. The ultimate goal is to help the citizens we serve."

Peter Buckley, MD, Chancellor, University of Tennessee Health Science Center

This collaborative project was seeded by the D3 – Drug Discovery and Development Initiative in 2020 by Steve Goodman, PhD, former vice chancellor for Research at UT Health Science Center, and Martha Head, PhD, formerly at ORNL. UT-ORII selected the radiopharmaceutical cancer therapeutics program and also a bioeconomy systems project as its new Convergent Research Initiatives (CRIs), areas of joint research for UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Over the next five years, UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory will invest $40 million-;$20 million per initiative-;and work jointly to accelerate world-leading innovation and establish UT and ORNL as national leaders in these areas.

"These two new Convergent Research Initiatives, along with an additional CRI next year will bring more than 100 new UT and ORNL researchers together across our state to tackle some of our nation's biggest challenges, while also bringing in new funds to Tennessee," President Boyd said. "That means more opportunities for graduate students and more opportunities for Tennesseans." 

The new CRIs were chosen from 54 proposals submitted by UT and ORNL joint research teams. "There was an outstanding response to the call for proposals from ORNL and UT researchers," said David Sholl, UT-ORII's interim executive director. "We had 54 teams of ORNL and UT researchers come together and say, 'We have a big idea. We're ready to work together.' That's powerful and demonstrates the tremendous potential we have to solve some of our nation's toughest problems and make a huge impact across the state and around the world, when we combine our resources."

In addition to Drs. Yue, Lee, Tigyi, and Schwartz, the core technical leadership group for the new radiopharmaceutical therapies project include, Sandra Davern, PhD, section head for radioisotope research and development and initiative lead for the Accelerating Radiotherapeutics Through Advanced Molecular Constructs Initiative and the Accelerating Radiotherapeutic Innovations and Applications Initiative at ORNL, and Rachel Patton McCord, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology at UT Knoxville.

The team's goal is to advance precision cancer treatment by focusing on a new generation of theranostics-;a combination of therapy and diagnostic imaging radioisotope-labeled drugs-;that utilizes targeted alpha-emitting radioisotope constructs to kill cancer cells with precision and minimal side effects. The team will also work to establish the education framework and workforce pipeline needed to attract radiopharmaceutical companies to Tennessee.

Dr. Tigyi has a long history of groundbreaking discoveries in cancer research, including the development of compounds that block cancer cells by stopping their growth and spread. He also has been a pioneer in the development of radiation injury countermeasures. He has worked closely with Dr. Yue, an animal model expert, who has been researching ovarian cancer treatments.

"We are thrilled to continue to work together with Drs. Davern and McCord and their research team across the system on this initiatve," Dr. Tigyi said. "In my more than 30 years at UT Health Science Center, I have been privileged to work with outstanding researchers dedicated to uncovering treatments for cancer. This project takes that life's work in a new and exciting direction."

Dr. Yue's research is funded by the Department of Defense to prevent and treat the development of therapy resistance of carcinoma cells. Dr. Schwartz, the founding director of the Center for Health Equity at UT Health Science Center, also recently received $2.75 million from the Tennessee Department of Health for a project to develop a personalized support systems to tackle interruptions to radiotherapy in at-risk patients.

Chancellor Buckley expressed his gratitude for the support of the competitive application by ORNL leaders, Director Stephen Streiffer, PhD; Deputy Director Susan Hubbard, PhD; UT-ORII's interim Executive Director David Sholl; Vice Chancellor for Research, Innovation, & Economic Development at UT Knoxville Deborah Crawford, PhD, and Wesley Byerly, PharmD, interim vice chancellor for Research at UT Health Science Center.

"This radiopharmaceuticals team science project is a great example of the many exciting opportunities ahead of us through statewide collaborations with our vital partners, with the goal of improving health care outcomes for the state," Dr. Byerly said.

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