GW Katzen Cancer Research Center Funds Innovative Cancer Research

view of interior entrance to Dr. Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen Cancer Research Center
May 17, 2012

By Jennifer Eder

Aiming to make significant improvements in cancer prevention, early diagnosis and treatment, the Dr. Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen Cancer Research Center awarded nearly $350,000 in research grants to four GW researchers.

The goal of the center’s annual research grants is to spur innovation and ultimately lead to a cure. The center, which is in its third year, is housed in GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences and works in collaboration with the GW Hospital and the GW Medical Faculty Associates.

“It is rewarding to support researchers who are finding clues to why cancers present in patients and identifying cutting-edge therapies for treatment,” said Robert Siegel, director of the Katzen Cancer Research Center.

Through one of the four research grants, the Katzen Center plans to partner with the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Jason Zara, associate professor of engineering and applied science; Michael Keidar, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; and Mary Ann Stepp, professor of anatomy, cell biology and ophthalmology, received a $75,000 grant to develop an imaging probe that can detect early-stage cancers. Optical coherence tomography uses near-infrared light to create high-resolution images 1 to 2 millimeters deep into tissues.

“If successful, this probe will allow a surgeon to detect a cancer that might otherwise be missed,” said Dr. Zara.

In particular, this study could help identify better screening techniques for oral cancer by better characterization of lesions. The research study will also examine the use of cold plasma technology to treat cancers while avoiding damage to surrounding healthy tissue. Cold plasmas use ionization – a type of chemical reaction – to cause cellular injury.

“We want to use the principles of engineering to fight this disease,” said Dr. Siegel, GW professor of medicine and director of hematology/oncology at the Medical Faculty Associates. “Robotics, computer science, nanobiotechnology, molecular imaging and cold plasma are engineering-based advances that will help us achieve our mission.

Paul Brindley, professor of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine, also received a $100,000 grant to study biomarkers that can detect the risk for a type of liver cancer called cholangiocarcinoma. Cholangiocarcinoma is the second most common type of liver cancer in the U.S. While the cause is unknown in the Western world, a parasitic worm called liver fluke is a primary cause for the cancer in East Asia. These studies by Dr. Brindley and his colleagues will focus on identifying microRNA markers in East Asia patients infected with a liver fluke.

“This may allow the early diagnosis of cholangiocarcinoma and thereby enhance prognosis and therapy, not only in Asia but in the U.S. and other western countries,” said Dr. Brindley.

Robert Hawley, professor and chair of anatomy and regenerative biology, will investigate the role of tumor-propagating cells in multiple myeloma – cancer of the plasma cells (the white blood cells that normally produce antibodies) found in bone marrow. Multiple myeloma, which is the second most common blood cell cancer in the U.S. and has no cure, causes plasma cells to grow out of control in the bone marrow, forming tumors inside bones, which then makes it harder for bone marrow to grow healthy blood cells and platelets. Dr. Hawley’s study, which received a $100,000 grant from the Katzen Cancer Research Center, will expand the current knowledge surrounding the basic biology of multiple myeloma and its resistance to conventional chemotherapy. If successful, this study could lead to a new class of therapeutic agents for multiple myeloma.

Dr. Hawley believes these tumor-propagating cells exhibit stem cell-like properties, which cause resistance to chemotherapeutic agents. During his study, he plans to isolate these cells by a technique called flow cytometric cell sorting and study their molecular pathways that have been inappropriately turned on.

“This will facilitate the development of new targeted therapies that we hope will translate to the clinic and one day cure the disease,” said Dr. Hawley.

Ray-Chang Wu, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, also received a $62,500 grant to study a specific gene called the steroid receptor coactivator 3/amplified in breast cancer 1 (SRC-3/AIB1) that has the potential to cause cancer when it’s amplified or overexpressed. However, when these genes are inactivated, they can inhibit the growth and survival of cancer cells. Dr. Wu’s research project will study whether the SRC-3/AIB1 can be inactivated and inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells.

“Since SRC-3/AIB1 is frequently over-expressed or activated in a wide variety of cancers, our study suggests that cancer drugs targeting SRC-3/AIB1 or its downstream molecular targets could be used to treat more than one type of cancer,” said Dr. Wu.

Leo Schargorodski, executive director of the Katzen Cancer Research Center, said he hopes these discoveries can be translated from the research lab to clinical trials.

“We can do this all at GW and the MFA,” he said. “We are very pleased with the scope and depth of all the innovative research.”

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