Texas invests $4.5 million in cancer research at UT Health Science Center at Houston

January 26, 2010

Texas plans to invest $3 billion in cancer research over the next 10 years and six scientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are among the first to receive grants.

The researchers, whose grants total $4.5 million, are working to protect girls from cervical cancer, to interrupt tumor growth at the molecular level and to develop a new approach for the treatment of colon cancer, among other cutting-edge projects.

Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2007 establishing the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) and authorizing the state to issue $3 billion in bonds to fund groundbreaking cancer research and prevention programs and services in Texas. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in Texas and claimed an estimated 37,000 lives in 2009, the Texas Cancer Registry reports.

UT Health Science Center at Houston researchers, along with their colleagues at other University of Texas System institutions, received more than half of the $61 million awarded during the initial round of funding through CPRIT.

"We are delighted that our Health Science Center investigators have participated with their colleagues from around the state in this new program to address the prevention and cure of cancer in Texas," said Peter Davies, M.D., Ph.D., executive vice president for research and interim executive vice president for academic affairs at the Health Science Center.

"We are particularly pleased with the success of several of these investigators in obtaining substantial research awards from CPRIT. We look forward to having these awards serve as a foundation for additional Heath Science Center research programs that will expand our research in the area of cancer cure and cancer prevention," Davies said.

Sixty-six research projects were selected from nearly 900 research proposals submitted to the institute. Proposals were reviewed by a team of more than 100 scientific experts. CPRIT-funded research will be conducted in state by Texas-based scientists.

John Hancock, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston, received a $1,401,529 award for his research into how the growth signals received by cells are scrambled in cancer cells leading to uncontrolled growth. Hancock is a holder of the Fondren Chair in Cellular Signaling at the UT Medical School at Houston.

"One major cause of this problem relates to a protein called Ras, which normally functions as a reversible switch that is toggled on and off. In many cancers, including colon, pancreas and lung, the Ras switch becomes stuck in the on position, which drives the cancer cell to replicate itself indefinitely," Hancock said. His CPRIT project is focused on developing drugs that will address this.

María E. Fernández, Ph.D., associate professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences at The University of Texas School of Public Health, was presented a $1,378,244 grant to test new strategies to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer among Hispanic women. Cervical cancer incidence and mortality rates among Hispanic women are almost twice that of non Hispanic white women, and Hispanic women in Texas experience among the highest rates of cervical cancer mortality in the country, she said.

Fernández will develop and test two educational interventions for the parents of Hispanic girls in the hope that parents will get their daughters a vaccine that prevents the major types of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cervical cancer. The educational materials include a photonovella (graphic novel) and an interactive video.

"Our study is the first ever to develop and test tailored interactive cancer communication approaches to increase HPV vaccination among Hispanic girls. Because the effectiveness of the interventions will be evaluated in a 'real world setting,' the findings of the study will be easily translatable to current clinical and community practice. If effective, the intervention could substantially reduce the cervical cancer-related disease burden among Hispanics in Texas," she said.

Qingyun "Jim" Liu, Ph.D., a professor at The Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases (IMM), a part of the Health Science Center, received a $1,280,107 grant for research into a novel approach for the treatment of colon cancer.

"A major problem in cancer therapy is that tumors often became resistant to treatment after initial response. Such resistance is believed to be due to the existence of cancer initiating cells, also called cancer stem cells that can regenerate the tumor. Our plan is to find drug targets on these cells that drive their growth so we can discover therapeutics that will block the target and consequently suppress the growth of these cells," Liu said.
Other Health Science Center researchers getting CPRIT grants include: Eric Wagner, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the UT Medical School at Houston, "Understanding the connection between alternative mRNA 3' end formation and microRNA function during tumorigenesis"; Mikhail Kolonin, Ph.D., assistant professor at the IMM, "Adipose progenitor cells as a new clinical cancer target"; and Perry Bickel, M.D., associate professor at the IMM and the UT Medical School, "Cancer in the Era of Obesity."

Other UT System institutions receiving grants included: UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas ($16,463,118); UT M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at Houston ($12,717,138); UT Health Science Center-San Antonio ($1,772,908); UT Austin ($3,319,732); and UT Dallas ($886,693).

University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

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