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CPRIT awards more than $3 million to GSBS Faculty for Cancer Research

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Author: Elizabeth Allen | Category: Around Campus | May 21, 2015

Dr. Tim Huang, Dr. Rong Li, and Dr. Bruce Nicholson were awarded more than $3 million in grants to work on projects to prevent cancer in South Texas.

“I’m not surprised but I’m delighted,” said Cancer Treatment & Research Center (CTRC) Director Dr. Ian M. Thompson Jr. “These grants demonstrate the breadth and depth of our researchers’ talents at every level.”

Core facility grant for single cancer cell analysis: Tim Huang, Ph.D., professor and chairman of molecular medicine at the Health Science Center and deputy director of the CTRC, $3.3 million

The CTRC already has the foundations of an important core facility doing single-cell analysis, Dr. Huang said, and this grant will allow the CTRC to acquire key pieces that will complete the services offered by the core facility. Those services include isolating and studying single cancer cells from urine and saliva to develop non-invasive methods for detecting cancer.

“This will give cancer researchers from throughout the region and beyond access to the latest analytical tools operated by a highly qualified technical team,” he said, “helping them to develop new ways to diagnose, monitor and treat cancer.”

Turning on the prevention switch for colon cancer: Rong Li, Ph.D., professor of molecular medicine at the UT Health Science Center, $200,000

An estrogen receptor, ER beta, appears to have an antitumor effect on the development of colon cancer. Dr. Li’s team has been studying ER beta’s activity in breast cancer and have discovered a molecular switch in ER-beta that can turn on its antitumor activity in breast cancer. What they need to know is whether the same switch is also operational for controlling the antitumor activity of ER beta in colon cancer, and if so, whether turning on this switch can prevent colon cancer.

“If our theory is correct, then we can approach this in several ways. We can use small molecule compounds being developed in other projects to turn the switch on,” Dr. Li said. “If so, there is the potential to develop a drug that could target colon cancer in the early stages – when the switch is still functional – to move it to the ‘on’ position.”

Harnessing the body’s defenses: Bruce Nicholson, Ph.D., professor and chair of biochemistry in the School of Medicine at the UT Health Science Center, $200,000

Breast cancer can be treated while it’s still in the breast, but its recurrence, sometimes years later, in other parts of the body is the cause of most mortality from this deadly disease. What the team led by Dr. Nicholson wants to know is how the body keeps the cancer in check for that long — and if that remission can be extended.

“We’re trying to tap the body’s own defenses to prevent recurrence,” Dr. Nicholson said.

This work examines how microRNAs are transferred from healthy bone cells (osteocytes) to metastasized breast cancer cells, suppressing their growth. It appears that this function works for a while, Dr. Nicholson said, but when it stops working is when the cancer recurs, this time in bones or other organs. 

“If we can understand this process and then prolong the time over which it continues,” he said, “we may be able to extend lifespan of many women.”

Another special congratulations to Dr. Barbara J. Turner, professor of medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and director of the Center for Research to Advance Community Health (ReACH) who was also awarded $1.5 million for liver cancer prevention targeting Hepatitis C infections. 

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