Apr 11, 2017 9:00 AM

scientist standing at podium

More than 20 researchers from Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah made their mark on the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting this year. Held in Washington, D.C., the convention drew more than 21,500 cancer researchers from all over the world. Scientists attended sessions on topics from immunotherapy to precision medicine. About 15 researchers from HCI presented posters in the main conference hall, on a wide range of topics.

Ten scientists and doctors from HCI were also invited to speak at the meeting. Pediatric oncologist Joshua Schiffman, MD, served as a panelist addressing new childhood cancer predisposition screening recommendations, which are expected to be published in the coming year. Schiffman was one of 65 doctors and genetic counselors chosen to define the new recommendations as part of the AACR Childhood Cancer Predisposition Workshop held last October. To make the job easier, participants broke childhood cancer disorders into nine categories. Schiffman was an organizing committee member for this workshop, and oversaw the grouping of neuroendocrine tumors.

“For those of us who clinically [screen and treat these patients] on a regular basis, it’s not uncommon for us to see a patient and wonder what should we do?” says Schiffman regarding the necessity of screening guidelines. “There’s really nothing in writing. Lots of emails go back and forth, and phone calls. For everyone in the field clinically, this is going to be a real game-changer for how we practice. This is going to be relevant to many of the patients we see every day.”

Meanwhile, HCI Senior Director of Population Sciences Neli Ulrich, PhD, spoke about the link between fat tissue and an increased
cancer risk. To date, thirteen types of cancer have been linked to obesity, making it second only to smoking as a cancer-causing exposure. Studying fat tissue has provided groundbreaking insights. “What happens during obesity is that the fat tissue itself can directly excrete substances that are carcinogenic,” Ulrich explains. “Some of the tumors we know, for example colon cancer, will sit right next to fat tissue. So if you have a tumor that’s surrounded by fat tissue, you may have direct impact of the fat tissue on your tumor.” Ulrich says these substances may drive the tumor to grow and survive.

These excreted substances can also feed into the blood stream, where they float around and increase inflammation in the entire body. That can impact tumors anywhere in the body. “The more fat people get, the more inflammation they have in their body,” says Ulrich. “It’s presumably driving tumors to grow. These inflammatory substances can also help create blood vessels to the tumor and probably help foster its growth.” Researchers don’t yet know whether this inflammation impacts cancer metastasis.

The AACR session from HCI Deputy Director Sunil Sharma, MD, proved to be very popular. AACR had to create an overflow room for his talk on LSD-1 inhibitor drugs, which are just starting to be used in numerous clinical trials across the country. LSD-1 is an enzyme that acts like a stem cell regulator. Sharma explains, “The expression of LSD-1 is highly upregulated in various cancers: high-grade prostate cancers, bladder cancers, neuroblastoma, sarcomas, lung cancer, and breast cancers.” So inhibiting that enzyme activity with this new classification of drugs is demonstrating promise.

Sharma detailed an HCI study where scientists studied the effects of LSD-1 inhibitors on Ewing Sarcoma, a rare childhood and young adult cancer that often begins in the bones. He explained that when researchers implanted this cancer in mice and then treated them with LSD-1 inhibitors, they saw the sarcomas disappear. He also gave updates on the drug in other cancers. He described how knocking down LSD-1 in Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) creates an inability of the cells to form leukemia stem cell colonies, and told how LSD-1 inhibition has anti-tumor activity in prostate cancers and small cell lung cancer.

HCI researchers spoke about all types of cancers. Jennifer Doherty, PhD, told convention-goers about blood markers that could potentially predict lung cancer survival. Doherty analyzed blood samples from 367 heavy smokers who eventually developed lung cancer. That blood, taken on average five years before patients were diagnosed, gave researchers potential clues. “We can see sets of markers associated with smoking exposure, age and specific blood cells,” explains Doherty. “We found that people whose blood was drawn closer to diagnosis seem to have different markers than people whose blood was drawn further away from diagnosis. Specifically, in this study, we saw that certain patterns could predict a person’s survival from lung cancer. While we have some promising preliminary findings, more information is needed.”

The next step for Doherty is to access multiple blood samples from smokers taken over a period of time. That way researchers could study what changes occur in these blood markers and which are most significant for predicting lung cancer occurrence and survival. Ultimately, Doherty says she’d like to develop a blood test doctors could use to understand a person’s likelihood of both developing, and surviving, lung cancer. “When people get screened for lung cancer,” she says, “they’re supposed to come in yearly. What we would like to see happen is at those yearly exams, they also get tested for markers in their blood. We are far from that, but it is definitely the goal.”

In addition to these AACR speakers, HCI gastroenterologist Jewel Samadder, MD, presented a speech on recent advances in precision prevention for inherited GI cancer syndromes like Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP) and Lynch syndrome, which put people at greater risk for colon and other cancers. Researcher Alana Welm, PhD, talked about how well mouse models represent the human disease when human tumors are implanted in mice. And scientist Sean Tavtigian, PhD, presented the latest research in the hunt for new colorectal cancer inherited susceptibility genes.

Researchers Donald Ayer, Jody Rosenblatt, and Andrea Bild, PhDs, also all gave hour-long speeches as part of the Meet-the-Expert sessions that took place in the early mornings. Ayer talked about how cancer cells sense and adapt to changes in nutrient status, Rosenblatt addressed how the expulsion of epithelial cells drives cancer formation, and Bild focused on how whole genome DNA sequencing can define genetic events in cancer cells over time.

Overall, it was a successful meeting with more HCI speakers than ever before. HCI’s CEO, Mary Beckerle, PhD, served on the AACR program committee.


Cancer Center Research Program Cell Response and Regulation Cancer Control and Population Sciences Nuclear Control of Cell Growth and Differentiation

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