May 27, 2020 11:00 AM

Author: Carley Lehauli

Hunter Underhill, MD, PhD, a Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) brain cancer researcher and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah (U of U), was awarded a special National Cancer Institute (NCI) grant to advance his research in brain tumor detection. Underhill will pursue new ways to detect glioblastoma, a type of aggressive and deadly brain tumor.

Underhill’s award carries a special distinction, as it is a Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) award. MERIT awards are given to research concepts with unusual potential, and recognize exceptional promise in researchers early in their career. Early career MERIT grants provide long-term, stable funding to advance high-impact investigations and support career development. Underhill’s MERIT award will provide approximately $1.75 million over five years, with the potential to extend the study if early results are promising.

Underhill’s goal is to address a major unmet medical need: improved detection and treatment strategies for patients with glioblastoma. Current techniques to diagnosis and monitor glioblastoma are very invasive, typically requiring imaging and surgery. Underhill and his colleagues hope to identify a less invasive way to – potentially via a blood test – to detect these tumors by examining circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA).

When tumors spread and are carried in the bloodstream, cells may die and be broken down, leaving behind ctDNA. Underhill’s earlier work detected shedded glioblastoma ctDNA by implanting human glioblastoma cells into a model system. These experiments strongly supported the possibility of detecting glioblastoma-derived ctDNA in humans as well.

With this new MERIT grant, Underhill and his colleagues will extend their earlier work.  “We are hoping that non-invasively diagnosing brain tumors may enable a personalized plan, prior to the initial intervention, to optimize care and potentially reduce the number of surgical procedures,” says Underhill. “We are hopeful that monitoring the blood for recurrence may enable more rapid detection and treatment of recurrent disease.”

This research is supported by the National Cancer Institute including R37 CA246183 and 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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