National Cancer Research Month in May recognizes innovative cancer research

UT Southwestern’s Harold C. Simmons Cancer Center, the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in North Texas and one of just 66 NCI-designated cancer centers in the nation, includes 13 major cancer care programs with a focus on treating the whole patient with innovative treatments, while fostering groundbreaking basic research that has the potential to improve patient care and prevention of cancer worldwide.

The common theme for Simmons Cancer Center research is to translate findings in one discipline, whether laboratory, clinical, or population-based research, across the spectrum of other research disciplines to improve methods of cancer prevention, diagnosis, detection, and treatment. Simmons Cancer Center promotes interdisciplinary research by providing researchers with the shared core resources and interactive forums necessary to achieve their scientific goals and objectives.

The Simmons Cancer Center’s five complementary scientific programs, which serve as vehicles for discovery, include:

  • Cancer Cell Networks
  • Chemistry and Cancer
  • Development and Cancer
  • Experimental Therapeutics of Cancer
  • Population Science and Cancer Control

In addition, cancer-related studies are done across the campus in a variety of departments. Highlights of UT Southwestern’s research efforts into cancer over the past year include:

  • The Simmons Cancer Center recently received a $3.24 million National Cancer Institute grant to expand its clinical trials. Adult participation in clinical trials at the Simmons Cancer Center more than doubled to 105 participants from 2006 to 2012. This new grant expands UT Southwestern’s ability to do even more clinical trials, said Dr. Joan Schiller, Deputy Director of Simmons Cancer Center, who wrote the grant application.
  • Two researchers in the Simmons Cancer Center received research grants from the Friends of the Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Daniel Siegwart, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, received a $50,000 grant to research ways to get a special RNA into cancer cells to destroy them. Another $50,000 grant will go to Dr. Angelique Whitehurst, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, who is trying to find a new approach to treating triple negative breast cancer, which is stubbornly resistant because it lacks three cell receptors that can be targeted by chemotherapy.
  • Dr. Ralf Kittler, an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, is building on his discovery of an important weakness in a protein that helps normal prostate cells change into cancer cells. He is attempting to develop a drug that will block an enzyme that protects the protein so the protein will be destroyed.
  • Research by Dr. Jerry Shay, Vice Chairman and Professor of Cell Biology, is developing a new predictive tool that could help patients with breast cancer and certain lung cancers decide whether follow-up treatments are likely to help. 
  • Another important contribution to this area of cancer research was made by Dr. Adi Gazdar, Professor of Pathology and Deputy Director for the Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Center for Therapeutic Oncology Research. He found a rare, inherited gene that makes lung cancer more likely in women who have never smoked.
  • In another detailed study of cancer at the genetic level, Dr. John Abrams, Professor of Cell Biology, found that p53, a tumor suppressant gene, is active in stem cells when damage is present. The finding is a significant contribution to cancer biology, and it is a step toward understanding how p53 suppresses tumors.
  • In the area of liver cancer, a strong case for more screening was made by the research findings of Dr. Amit Singal, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and Clinical Sciences and Medical Director of the Liver Cancer Clinic. Dr. Singal’s meta-analysis of nearly 50 studies found that patients with cirrhosis should be screened for liver cancer. He found the proof in the data – and in the saving of the life of one of his own patients, a 60-year-old man from Forney, Texas.
  • Dr. David Gerber, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, and Dr. James Kim, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, each received grants from the Department of Defense to carry out a detailed study of an anti-fungal medication’s effectiveness on lung tumors. The two grants total more than half a million dollars.
  • Dr. Deepak Agrawal, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, found in a review of a dozen popular websites that most of the online patient education materials for colorectal cancer screening were written beyond the recommended sixth-grade reading level, while content on the sites failed to address key risks, as well as the barriers to and benefits of screening.
  • Dr. Sandeep Burma, Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology in the division of Molecular Radiation Biology, demonstrated in both cancer cell lines and in mice that blocking critical DNA repair mechanisms could improve the effectiveness of radiation therapy for highly fatal brain tumors called glioblastomas.
  • Dr. Steve Jiang, UT Southwestern’s new Director of the Division of Medical Physics and Engineering, and Professor and Vice Chairman of Radiation Oncology, is researching new ways to use the speed of video game processors to promote research that is aimed at improving patient care, such as cutting the time needed to calculate the radiation dose delivered to a tumor during proton radiotherapy.
  • UT Southwestern’s Dr. Lu Le, Assistant Professor of Dermatology, found by inhibiting a key protein, a rare, incurable type of soft-tissue cancer could be eradicated.
  • Dr. Philip Shaul, Professor and Vice Chair for Research in Pediatrics and a member of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, found that as cholesterol is metabolized, a potent stimulant of breast cancer is created – one that fuels estrogen-receptor positive breast cancers, and that may also defeat a common treatment strategy for those cancers.
  • Dr. Fiemu Nwariaku, Professor of Surgery, and Dr. James Bibb, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, identified a specific protein once thought to exist only in the brain that may play a crucial role in a deadly form of thyroid cancer, as well as other cancers, and provides a fresh target for researchers seeking ways to stop its progression.
  • A conservative approach to removing lymph nodes is associated with less harm for breast cancer patients and often yields the same results as more radical procedures, a study by Dr. Roshni Rao, Associate Professor of Surgery, found.
  • Overactivity of a protein that normally cues cells to divide sabotages the body’s natural cellular recycling process, leading to heightened cancer growth and chemotherapy resistance, a study led by Dr. Beth Levine showed.
  • Dr. Amyn Habib, Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, identified a cellular switch that potentially can be turned off and on to slow down, and eventually inhibit the growth of the most commonly diagnosed and aggressive malignant brain tumor.
  • Using data from a National Cancer Institute-sponsored Phase 3 trial involving 850 patients with advanced lung cancer, Dr. David Gerber, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, and colleagues have shown that even in advanced stages total tumor size can have a major impact on survival.
  • A multidisciplinary team led by Dr. Ralph Mason at UT Southwestern Medical Center has found that measuring the oxygenation of tumors can be a valuable tool in guiding radiation therapy, opening the door for personalized therapies that keep tumors in check with oxygen enhancement.