CPRIT awards UTSW faculty $22.5 million for recruitment and research in liver cancer, leukemia, and immunotherapy

Dr. James Willson
Dr. James Willson

DALLAS – November 24, 2014 – UT Southwestern Medical Center faculty was awarded seven grants totaling more than $22 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) for investigations into leukemia, liver cancer, and immunotherapy, as well as to recruit new faculty.

Funding for project development initiatives at UT Southwestern, which are designed to expedite innovation by helping bridge the gap between promising new discoveries in cancer and commercial development, included:

  • $2 million to study a new antibody therapy for treating leukemia,
  • $1.35 million for research targeting liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma, and
  • $1.1 million to study a receptor for anti-cancer immunotherapy.

In addition, CPRIT awarded UT Southwestern four grants totaling $18 million to recruit and support promising investigators and distinguished senior researchers making outstanding contributions to the field of cancer research. Those grants help build Texas’ cancer research capabilities through the recruitment of scientists who have demonstrated academic excellence, innovation, superior training, and potential for impact.

“We are grateful to CPRIT and the people of Texas for their continued support of investigators at UT Southwestern, as reflected by these awards. These funds will enable our faculty and their teams to drive important advances that will lead to better care for cancer patients,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern and holder of the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery Jr., M.D., Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.

The seven grants to UT Southwestern researchers were among 32 grants totaling $65 million for product development, prevention programs, and recruitment awarded by CPRIT after a thorough review process, recommendation by their respective program review councils, and approval by the Oversight Committee. To date, CPRIT has awarded approximately $1.14 billion in grants. “The research projects selected at UT Southwestern represent the innovative approaches being taken by members of the Simmons Cancer Center to find new and better therapies for those facing a cancer diagnosis, and to better understand the biological processes involved,” said Dr. James Willson, Associate Dean of Oncology Programs, Professor and Director of the Harold C. Simmons Cancer Center, Professor of Internal Medicine, and holder of The Lisa K. Simmons Distinguished Chair in Comprehensive Oncology. “We are continually encouraged by the support that CPRIT provides UT Southwestern researchers to further the goal of eradicating cancer.”

Dr. ChengCheng Zhang, Associate Professor of Physiology and Developmental Biology and a member of the Simmons Cancer Center, is studying a new antibody therapy for treating leukemia.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is the most common acute leukemia affecting adults, and despite continuous treatment, the majority of patients relapse within five years. Leukemia stem cells may be responsible for the relapse of disease following a remission brought about by conventional chemotherapy, and new molecular targets and therapeutic approaches need to be identified to effectively inhibit LSC activity, said Dr. Zhang, the Michael L. Rosenberg Scholar in Medical Research, who is focusing on molecular targets called LILRB.

“The disruption of several LILRB in human and mouse leukemia cells blocked leukemia development. Moreover, inhibition of LILRB stimulates body immunity and indirectly boosts anti-tumor effects. Therefore, LILRB signaling represents an ideal target for treating AML,” Dr. Zhang said. “Our proposed blockade of LILRB signaling may prove to be an effective strategy for elimination of leukemia stem cells and lead to complete remission of patients.”

Dr. Hao Zhu, Assistant Professor with the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern, the Simmons Cancer Center, and Internal Medicine and Pediatrics, is targeting the SWI/SNF chromatin-remodeling complex in liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma.

Liver cancer is a significant cause of cancer-related death worldwide and Texas has the second highest incidence rate in the U.S. Cirrhosis is the strongest risk factor for liver cancer. Dr. Zhu, CPRIT Scholar in Cancer Research, is working to develop effective therapies for cirrhosis, and to develop effective liver cancer drugs that do not harm the cirrhotic liver.

“Recently, we identified a pathway (SWI/SNF chromatin remodeling pathway) that when suppressed, results in better liver regeneration and can potentially inhibit liver cancer. We will use mouse models to validate the pathway as a target in chronic liver disease and liver cancer. We will develop novel compounds for the simultaneous treatment of cirrhosis and cancer in the liver,” he said.

Dr. Kiyoshi Ariizumi, Associate Professor of Dermatology, and Dr. Ponciano Cruz, Vice Chairman and Professor of Dermatology with the Simmons Cancer Center, are targeting the DC-HIL receptor for anti-cancer immunotherapy. Survival of patients with advanced or widespread cancer remains poor because many cancers can weaken the immune system by activating a special type of white blood cells. These cells are called myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSC) and prevent natural killing of cancer cells, said Dr. Cruz, Chief of Dermatology at the Dallas VA Medical Center, Director of the Contact Allergy Clinic at UT Southwestern and holder of the Paul R. Bergstresser, M.D., Chair in Dermatology.

Dr. Ariizumi’s laboratory discovered that mice and patients with melanoma express a protein (termed DC-HIL) on the surface of MDSC that is responsible for their ability to prevent natural killing of cancer cells. Blocking its function through a specific antibody stops the activation and expansion of MDSC, reactivates the cancer-killing ability of cancer patients, and slows down the growth and spread of melanoma. Similar processes may apply to other types of cancer.

“Our goal is to create a DC-HIL-blocking antibody that will be used to treat patients with advanced melanoma and other cancers in a safe and more effective manner than existing treatments,” said Dr. Ariizumi. “Our studies have the added benefit of a blood marker that can identify patients who might best respond to this treatment.”

CPRIT funding for faculty includes recruitments from Harvard University and Harvard Medical School, McGill University Health Center, and the University of California, San Diego.

CPRIT was established in 2007 after Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment that authorized the state to fund cancer research and prevention programs. Beginning operations in 2009, CPRIT has to date awarded more than $930 million in grants to Texas researchers, institutions, non-profits, and private enterprises. Programs made possible with CPRIT funding have reached every corner of the state, brought more than 50 distinguished researchers to Texas, advanced scientific and clinical knowledge, and made life-saving education, training, prevention, and early detection services available to more than 1.3 million Texans at risk of cancer.

UT Southwestern’s Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in North Texas and one of just 66 NCI-designated cancer centers in the nation. The Simmons Cancer Center 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 prevent cancer worldwide. In addition, the Center’s education and training programs support and develop the next generation of cancer researchers and clinicians.

The Simmons Cancer Center is among only 30 U.S. cancer research centers to be named a National Clinical Trials Network Lead Academic Site, a prestigious new designation by the NCI, and the only Cancer Center in North Texas to be so designated. The designation and associated funding is designed to bolster the cancer center’s clinical cancer research for adults and to provide patients access to cancer research trials sponsored by the NCI, where promising new drugs often are tested.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center
UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty includes many distinguished members, including six who have been awarded Nobel Prizes since 1985. Numbering approximately 2,800, the faculty is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide medical care in 40 specialties to about 92,000 hospitalized patients and oversee approximately 2.1 million outpatient visits a year.  

###

Media Contact: Lori Sundeen Soderbergh
214-648-3404
lori.soderbergh@utsouthwestern.edu

To automatically receive news releases from UT Southwestern via email, subscribe at www.utsouthwestern.edu/receivenews