Jul 18, 2019 12:00 PM

Trudy Oliver, PhD and Milind Chalishazar

Research from scientists at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah (U of U) yielded new insights into understanding potential new treatment options for MYC-driven tumors, a distinct subtype of small cell lung cancer. MYC is a protein that drives cell proliferation, growth, death, and self-renewal. The results were published this month in Clinical Cancer Research, a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research. 

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among men and women in Utah and the United States. Often, symptoms do not appear until the disease is advanced. Therefore, research studies toward better practices to prevent, find, and treat lung cancer are paramount.

Trudy Oliver, PhD, an investigator at HCI and associate professor of oncological sciences at the U of U, led the study. “We conducted this study to determine whether metabolic weaknesses exist between small cell lung cancer subtypes and whether we can exploit them,” said Oliver.

In 2017, Dr. Oliver’s research created the first known replica of a small cell tumor caused by a protein called MYC and discovered that these tumors are more aggressive, spread faster, and respond differently to therapy. Building on that knowledge, her team delivered ADI-PEG20, an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid arginine, in MYC-positive genetically-engineered mouse models and human patient-derived cells, resulting in a promising breakthrough.

“We targeted MYC-positive tumors and saw remarkable results, including tumor shrinkage and tumor death and a significant extension in overall survival,” says Milind Chalishazar, a PhD student in the Oliver lab, who conducted the laboratory work. “This suggests that we have identified a potential new therapeutic strategy that will improve lung cancer outcomes in the future.” 

Currently, small cell lung cancer accounts for approximately 10-15% of lung cancers. It is rarer and more aggressive than non-small cell lung cancer. Standard chemotherapy treatment for small-cell cancer has remained similar for the last 40 years. Only minor progress in treatment options for patients who develop resistance to chemotherapy in small cell lung cancer has occurred.

“The lack of new treatment options for patients with small cell lung cancer often results in poor survival rates,” said Oliver. “This research will inform clinical trials we are currently designing.”

The study is supported by the Lung Cancer Research Foundation through a William C. Rippe Award for Distinguished Research in Lung Cancer to Dr. Oliver, the National Cancer Institute grant P30 CA042014, and Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

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About Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah is the official cancer center of Utah and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the Mountain West. The campus includes a state-of-the-art cancer specialty hospital and two buildings dedicated to cancer research. Huntsman Cancer Institute provides patient care, cancer screening, and education at community clinics and affiliate hospitals throughout the Mountain West. It is consistently recognized among the best cancer hospitals in the country by U.S. News and World Report. The region’s first proton therapy center opened in 2021 and a major hospital expansion is underway. Huntsman Cancer Institute is committed to creating a diverse and inclusive environment for staff, students, patients, and communities. Advancing cancer research discoveries and treatments to meet the needs of patients who live far away from a major medical center is a unique focus. More genes for inherited cancers have been discovered at Huntsman Cancer Institute than at any other cancer center, including genes responsible for breast, ovarian, colon, head and neck cancers, and melanoma. Huntsman Cancer Institute was founded by Jon M. and Karen Huntsman.

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