Aug. 25, 2015:

Ultimate success in the fight against cancer requires advances at every stage. In this month’s edition of Across the Consortium, we celebrate victories at a number of critical stages in cancer research. Through thesis formation to diverse funding acquisition, opportunities for new programs arise, leading to further innovation, collaboration, and success.

University of Illinois Cancer Center

A University of Illinois at Chicago cancer researcher has been awarded a four-year, $560,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to evaluate the usefulness of a novel magnetic resonance imaging technique to discriminate between aggressive and slower growing early-stage prostate cancers.

Michael Abern, MD, assistant professor of urology and director of urologic oncology at UIC, will lead a study to evaluate a new MRI technique, developed at UIC by Xiaohong Joe Zhou, PhD, DABR, professor of radiology, neurosurgery and bioengineering.

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Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center

Accomplishments in the first three years of their collaboration to fight pancreatic cancer have earned the scientists at the Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research designation as an IUPUI Signature Center.
Researchers predict that the disease, which takes 40,000 lives in the U.S. each year, will be the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. within 15 years.

In a multi-university effort headquartered at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center on the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus, about 50 research scientists have geared up to fight the deadly malignancy.

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University of Iowa Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, and it results from genetic alterations that promote the survival and proliferation of neoplastic cells. One of the most commonly disrupted cancer gene networks is the ARF-Mdm2-Tip60-p53 pathway. Inactivation of the ARF, Tip60 and p53 tumor suppressors and/or overexpression of the Mdm2 oncogene occurs in most, if not all, human cancers. An improved molecular understanding of that pathway, especially how it becomes activated, is expected to advance the development of innovative therapeutics aimed at restoring its function in tumors.

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University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center

Researchers at the University of Michigan have demonstrated the advantages of a capture-based transcriptome sequencing protocol for clinical purposes from formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded tissues, compared to RNA-seq methods that rely on either poly A selection or rRNA depletion.

The team, which has been running the capture-based method alongside the more traditional poly-A RNA-seq method for its clinical cancer sequencing pipeline since 2011, has now demonstrated that the capture-based method is as good or better than the poly A approach for all metrics and plans to use only that method for future clinical cases.

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Michigan State University Breslin Cancer Center

When MSU-based biophysicist Barnett Rosenberg and his team of researchers made the observations that led to the development of cisplatin and carboplatin as anti-cancer drugs in the 1970s, they couldn’t have had any idea that the fruits of their success would still be making an impact nearly half a century later.

In addition to the lives that are being saved, the impact of Rosenberg’s anti-cancer discoveries can be measured in another way: royalty income.

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Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota is partnering with Fate Therapeutics, Inc., a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company, for the development of natural killer (NK) cell-based cancer immunotherapeutics.

The collaboration will foster the advancement of two distinct therapeutic programs, both of which aim to leverage the inherent ability of NK cells to rapidly detect and effectively destroy malignant cells without prior antigen exposure or administration of a patient’s own immune cells. While adoptive transfer of NK cells has demonstrated anti-tumor activity, the isolation and generation of clinically relevant quantities of homogeneous populations of highly-persistent NK cells has been challenging. Fate Therapeutics will utilize its cell programming approach and proprietary induced pluripotent stem cell technology under the collaboration to pursue the development of optimized “off-the-shelf” NK cell-based cancer therapeutics.

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Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center (University of Nebraska)

The Team Jack Foundation, in partnership with the Nebraska State Legislature, will commit to a $3 million project for the development of a pediatric brain tumor program at UNMC’s Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center. Board Chair of the Team Jack Foundation, Andrew Hoffman, testified for LB 110, a legislative bill to appropriate funds for pediatric cancer specialists, at the Nebraska State Legislature’s Appropriations Committee Hearing this past legislative session. Included in the appropriation are funds to support two additional pediatric cancer specialists. The funds appropriated by the legislation will be used to leverage additional private funding. The Team Jack Foundation has committed to raising $1.5 million over six years to match these funds.

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Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University

In 1928, Georgios Papanikolaou, a Greek physician, made a discovery that would forever change the practice of women’s health. After gathering cells from an easily accessible area, he found he could examine them under a microscope and detect early signs of cervical cancer. Soon, physicians worldwide began administering the “Pap test” during routine patient visits. Early diagnosis naturally led to early treatment, and cervical cancer death rates dropped by 90 percent.

“If we only had regular comparable screens for other types of cancer — lung, colon, and prostate, for example — we could reduce cancer deaths by ten-fold,” says Vadim Backman, PhD, Walter Dill Scott Professor of Biomedical Engineering at McCormick. “But when else have we seen such a discovery? Never.”

Backman hopes to change that. He has developed a new suite of tools for early cancer detection and diagnostics that could potentially rival the monumental impact of Papanikolaou’s test. The abnormalities that Papanikolaou noticed were clearly revealed beneath the microscope; Backman’s test can detect changes that occur even earlier and on the smallest scale.

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Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute

The rising incidence of Barrett’s esophagus (BE) over the past two decades, coincident with increases in obesity, chronic heartburn, and gastroesophageal reflux disease, has focused attention on questions about how to monitor and treat these patients. About four in 1,000 BE patients annually develop esophageal adenocarcinoma (EAC), a 30- to 40-fold greater risk than in the general public. EAC, in turn, is linked to five-year survival rates of only about 20 percent. While early identification of high-risk BE patients is critical to improve EAC survival, factors predictive of cancer progression have not been identified.

“We really don’t understand yet why some patients with BE progress to develop esophageal dysplasia and EAC, while most others don’t. The research we’re beginning to conduct at Penn State Hershey Medical Center aims to identify molecular red flags in BE patients that predict EAC,” said Douglas Stairs, PhD. Stairs, along with colleagues at Penn State Hershey Gastroenterology and Hepatology, including Thomas J. McGarrity, MD, and Atul Bhardwaj, MD, recently launched efforts to build a BE tissue bank, using blood and tissue samples obtained from routine endoscopic monitoring in Medical Center BE patients. “We expect to enroll about 150 patients in the tissue bank project in this first year; each time a participant undergoes endoscopy, additional samples will be obtained. The tissue bank will allow us to conduct prospective, longitudinal, population analyses of gene expression patterns in patients with BE,” explains Stairs.

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Purdue University Center for Cancer Research

All around us are cancer treatments, found in molecules hidden in nature. But there’s not nearly enough to treat the millions of people affected by the disease. That’s where chemistry comes in. Still, there’s only a handful of compounds chemists can synthesize in enough volume to reach clinical trials and commercialization. To bridge that gap, Akanocure Pharmaceuticals, a Purdue Research Park-based startup, developed a platform to produce natural cancer therapies on a large scale.

The company, founded in October by Purdue University professor emeritus Philip Fuchs and recent doctoral graduates Sherine Abdelmawla and Mohammad Noshi was among 10 teams to win a $100,000 award in June from Founder.org, a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that invests in “young innovators solving big problems,” according to its website.

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Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey

Every year, more than 200,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer in the United States. For most of them, surgery or radiation along with hormonal treatment works and they can go on with their lives. But some of them experience a recurrence of the disease, often in their bones and lymph nodes, which then requires chemotherapy. Nearly 30,000 of these men die each year.

Now, however, a large, multi-institution study, led by Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey Director Robert S. DiPaola, MD, will provide more hope for these patients. In the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that for patients who have recurrent prostate cancer that has spread, combining the standard hormone therapy with chemotherapy increased survival on average by more than a year.

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University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center

The National Cancer Institute has selected two UW-Madison faculty, Michael Fiore, MD, MPH, and Paul Sondel, MD, PhD, as inaugural recipients of an Outstanding Investigator Award (OIA), which provides seven years of research support to investigators with outstanding records of productivity and achievement in cancer research.

Together, the grants for Sondel and Fiore total $12.8 million. Both physicians are members of the UW Carbone Cancer Center and long-time faculty members at the School of Medicine and Public Health.

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Information for this story was compiled from BTCRC member websites, news releases, and social media.

About the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium: The Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium creates a unique team-research culture to drive science rapidly from ideas to treatment-changing paradigms. Within this innovative environment, today’s research leaders collaborate with and mentor the research leaders of tomorrow with the unified goal of improving the lives of all patients with cancer.

About the Big Ten Conference: The Big Ten Conference is an association of world-class universities whose member institutions share a common mission of research, graduate, professional and undergraduate teaching and public service. Founded in 1896, the Big Ten has sustained a comprehensive set of shared practices and policies that enforce the priority of academics in the lives of students competing in intercollegiate athletics and emphasize the values of integrity, fairness and competitiveness. The broad-based programs of the 14 Big Ten institutions will provide over $200 million in direct financial support to almost 9,500 students for more than 11,000 participation opportunities on 350 teams in 42 different sports. The Big Ten sponsors 28 official conference sports, 14 for men and 14 for women, including the addition of men’s ice hockey and men’s and women’s lacrosse since 2013. For more information, visit www.bigten.org.