May 30, 2019 2:00 PM

female researcher in a lab

Scientists at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) work hard every day to understand cancer from its beginnings and to use that knowledge in the creation and improvement of cancer treatments.

Within and across four research programs, HCI's experts take on major challenges in cancer:

  • Understanding processes in healthy cells and how they go awry in cancer
  • Developing novel treatment approaches and testing them for success
  • Discovering genetic risk factors and detecting cancer early
  • Encouraging healthy behaviors aimed at preventing cancer and improving well-being after a cancer diagnosis

To recognize National Cancer Research Month, we asked the leaders of our research programs what projects and goals they are focused on this year.

Nuclear Control of Cell Growth and Differentiation

The Nuclear Control of Cell Growth and Differentiation program aims to provide new understanding of the genetics and mechanics of cancer development. This program’s research focuses on the processes that happen in a cell’s nucleus that go awry in cancer and how they contribute to cancer development. Discoveries help identify new ways to treat cancer.

Scientists in the program have made significant progress in recent years:

  • Understanding the roles of gene regulation and dysregulation in cancer
  • Unraveling the relationship between metabolism and transcription in cancer cells
  • Revealing the mechanisms of DNA damage, replication, and repair in cancer

We will continue to play leading roles in cancer-focused basic science and partner with colleagues to move discoveries into translational research and clinical use.

Cell Response and Regulation

HCI could not make progress against cancer without new basic science discoveries, which are critical for finding new treatments. The Cell Response and Regulation program builds collaborative teams to accelerate progress in the types of cancer that affect people in the Mountain West and beyond.

Our scientists study how cancer cells arise, what makes them progress to a malignant state, and how we can use this new understanding to develop new therapies. In the coming year, we will continue to move discoveries toward treatments in partnership with HCI clinical researchers. Some examples include a large discovery effort in melanoma with associated clinical trials, a personalized medicine program for breast cancer, and new advances in lung cancer and various childhood cancers.

Experimental Therapeutics

The Experimental Therapeutics program is focused on drug discovery and delivery and on clinical research. There are several projects co-leaders Martin McMahon, PhD, and Neeraj Agarwal, MD, are excited about this year.

Building on research published in Nature Medicine in April 2019, Conan Kinsey, MD, and colleagues have initiated the THREAD clinical trial to test the potential clinical benefits of a new combination of two FDA-approved drugs in patients with pancreatic cancer. In parallel, Martin McMahon, PhD and Dr. Kinsey are continuing to test this combination of drugs in laboratory models of melanoma, colorectal, and lung cancer. 

Michael Deininger, MD, has a long-standing interest in new therapies for patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Working in collaboration with medicinal chemist Hariprasad Vankayalapati, M.Pharm, PhD, Dr. Deininger and colleagues are using computational methods to develop new inhibitors of an enzyme named Sirtuin-5 (SIRT5), which is thought to help sustain the metabolism of cancer cells. Having developed SIRT5 inhibitors, it is expected that they will be tested in a clinical trial in AML patients.

CAR T cell therapy is a new and exciting approach to treating blood cancers. With a long-standing focus on multiple myeloma, Djordje Atanackovic, MD, and colleagues are developing CAR T cells that recognize a protein called CD229 found on the surface of multiple myeloma cells. Dr. Atanackovic’s work is in late-stage preclinical development and it is expected that this approach will translate into a new clinical trial in multiple myeloma patients in 2020. 

Cancer Control and Population Sciences

The Cancer Control and Population Sciences program focuses on understanding cancer family history and genetic risk for cancer and in identifying and testing strategies to improve cancer disparities.

One area of particular focus is cancer disparities in rural and frontier communities, especially because much of Utah and the Mountain West is so sparsely populated. Mia Hashibe, PhD, Anne Kirchhoff, PhD, Deanna Kepka, PhD, Kathi Mooney, PhD, RN, and other University of Utah faculty collaborated on a study to investigate disparities in cancer rates and survival based on whether a patient lives in an urban or rural community. They found that patients with cancer from rural counties were more likely to be older, American Indian/Alaskan Native, non-Hispanic, male, and diagnosed at a higher stage. Rural residents also had a five-year relative survival that was 5.2% lower than urban residents and a 10% increase in risk of death. Further research will identify the reasons behind these differences in cancer survival and test strategies to reduce disparities.

Another recent study by scientists in the Cancer Control and Population Sciences program examined patterns of lung cancer incidence, smoking, and radon levels in urban and rural areas. In states with high smoking rates, it is hard to determine radon’s contribution to lung cancer. But in Utah, which has the nation’s lowest smoking rate, lung cancer incidence rates in rural counties with high levels of radon were significantly higher than in counties with moderate levels of radon. This suggests radon was a major contributor to lung cancer in these areas.

Cancer is very complex. Yet as part of a community wholly focused on this challenge together, HCI is poised to make extraordinary contributions to eradicate cancer.

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Cancer touches all of us.

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