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Simmons Cancer Center investigators receive more than $17 million in CPRIT funding

DALLAS – June 08, 2022 – Fifteen scientists in the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at UT Southwestern received more than $17 million in research funds in the latest round of grants awarded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). The grants will be used to address scientific questions covering a wide range of cancer types and topics.

“The generous grants awarded during this current round of CPRIT funding are a testament to the outstanding cancer research we continue to perform at UT Southwestern,” said Carlos L. Arteaga, M.D., Director of the Simmons Cancer Center, who holds the Lisa K. Simmons Distinguished Chair in Comprehensive Oncology.

Thomas Carroll, Ph.D., Professor of Internal Medicine and Molecular Biology, was awarded $1,040,229 to study a subset of kidney cancers called sarcomatoid renal cell carcinoma (sRCC) in a newly developed mouse model. sRCC is the most aggressive type of kidney cancer with the worst prognosis.

Maralice Conacci-Sorrell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Cell Biology, was awarded $1,049,997 to study how the essential amino acid tryptophan and its catabolite molecules could serve as markers to diagnose tumors and examine the efficacy of limiting tryptophan availability or activity to inhibit the growth of tumors driven by the universal oncogene MYC. She and her colleagues previously discovered that cancer cells require very high amounts of tryptophan in order to grow uninterruptedly. 

Jinming Gao, Ph.D., Professor of Cell Biology, Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, Pharmacology, and in the Simmons Cancer Center, was awarded $1,048,518 to develop an intravenously administered nanotherapeutic that turns on innate immune pathways for T-cell therapy of metastatic cancers. Metastatic diseases are responsible for 90% of cancer-related deaths and remain a paramount challenge in patient care. 

Lee Kraus, Ph.D., Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Pharmacology, and Director of the Cecil H. and Ida Green Center for Reproductive Biology Sciences, was awarded $1,027,464 to study specific cancer-causing mutations in genes that encode histone proteins. This research may eventually lead to new ways to fight breast and ovarian cancers.

Weibo Luo, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Pathology and Pharmacology, was awarded $1,049,997 to define and characterize a novel metabolic vulnerability of glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) tumors that carry the wild-type gene for the enzyme isocitrate dehydrogenase. These cancers make up 90% of highly malignant GBM, with few effective treatments available. 

David McFadden, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and Biochemistry, was awarded $1,049,997 to study the role of defective mitochondria in thyroid cancers, including a specific subset known as Hürthle cell cancer. He and his colleagues also aim to identify the metabolic adaptations of these cells and identify new targets for treatment of cancers with defective mitochondria.

Joshua Mendell, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Molecular Biology, was awarded $1,050,000 to use cellular and animal models to investigate the mechanism by which chemical modification of ribosomal RNA controls a state called cellular senescence, which is a protective mechanism that stops the growth of cells that have acquired mutations in genes that cause cancer. Dr. Mendell’s group will study how this mechanism of regulating cellular senescence impacts lung cancer.

Sean Morrison, Ph.D., Professor of Pediatrics and Director of the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern, was awarded $520,682 to study the role of lipid metabolism in the distant metastasis of melanoma cells. Distant metastasis, in which cancer cells spread to other parts of the body, causes most cancer deaths.

Ping Mu, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology, was awarded $1,049,997 to study how the most lethal form of prostate cancer, known as metastatic castration resistant prostate cancer, develops resistance to androgen receptor-targeted therapies and whether a novel class of drugs could reduce this resistance. This cancer subtype currently has a five-year survival rate of just 28%.

Satwik Rajaram, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Pathology, in the Lyda Hill Department of Bioinformatics, and in the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, was awarded $1,172,136 to use artificial intelligence to analyze digital images of metastatic clear cell renal cell carcinoma tumors, the most common type of kidney cancer. The goal of this proposal, which is a collaboration with Dr. Payal Kapur, M.D., Professor of Pathology and Urology and co-Principal Investigator, is to predict gene expression signatures from histopathology alone, and thereby minimize cost and overcome issues related to intratumor heterogeneity. Eventually, this approach could lead to better biomarkers for personalized treatments for our patients with this cancer type.

Kenneth Westover, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology and Biochemistry, was awarded $1,049,997 to study complexes formed by RAS proteins at the cell membrane and whether these structures can serve as targets for new small molecule inhibitors. Mutations in RAS proteins are common drivers of lethal cancers. 

Jiang Wu, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Physiology, was awarded $1,399,996 to study the significance of heterogeneity in the activity of an epigenetic regulator called PRC2 in a type of pediatric brain cancer called medulloblastoma. The cells that make up these and other cancerous tumor types are often heterogeneous and contain subclones with genetic and epigenetic variations, although the significance of this phenomenon on tumor development is not well understood. 

Jian Xu, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics and in the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern, was awarded $1,049,997 to elucidate the mechanisms controlling metabolic rewiring of cancer-initiating cells in acute myeloid leukemia (AML), the deadliest blood cancer. He was awarded an additional $1,049,997 to study the role of mobile DNA elements called retrotransposons in the stem cells that spur progression and/or relapse in AML.

Nan Yan, Ph.D., Professor of Immunology and Microbiology, was awarded $1,049,997 to study how cancerous tumors kill T-cells to escape immune surveillance. T-cells are important immune cells that patrol the body and provide protection from infections and cancer.

Chengcheng Zhang, Ph.D., Professor of Physiology, was awarded $1,049,997 to study whether a protein called LILRB3 on the surface of immune cells called myeloid cells could serve as a new target to fight several types of cancers including prostate, ovarian, and skin cancers. This protein appears to support cancer development. 

Dr. Carroll holds The NCH Corporation Distinguished Chair in Molecular Transport. Dr. Conacci-Sorrell is a Virginia Murchison Linthicum Scholar in Medical Research. Dr. Gao holds the Elaine Dewey Sammons Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research, in Honor of Eugene P. Frenkel, M.D. Dr. Kapur holds the Jan and Bob Pickens Distinguished Professorship in Medical Science, in Memory of Jerry Knight Rymer and Annette Brannon Rymer, and Mr. and Mrs. W. L. Pickens. Dr. Kraus holds the Cecil H. and Ida Green Distinguished Chair in Reproductive Biology Sciences. Dr. Mendell holds the Charles Cameron Sprague, M.D. Chair in Medical Science. Dr. Morrison holds the Kathryne and Gene Bishop Distinguished Chair in Pediatric Research at Children's Research Institute at UT Southwestern, and the Mary McDermott Cook Chair in Pediatric Genetics. Dr. Mu is a Deborah and W.A. “Tex” Moncrief, Jr. Scholar in Medical Research. Dr. Wu is a Virginia Murchison Linthicum Scholar in Medical Research. Dr. Yan is a Rita C. and William P. Clements, Jr. Scholar in Medical Research. Dr. Zhang holds the Hortense L. and Morton H. Sanger Professorship in Oncology and is a Michael L. Rosenberg Scholar in Medical Research. 

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 26 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,900 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 4 million outpatient visits a year.