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Huntsman Cancer Institute Researchers Receive Grant to Study Link Between Obesity and Cancer

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Collage of Mary Playdon, Scott Summers, and Neli Ulrich
Mary Playdon, PhD, MPH | Scott Summers, PhD | Neli Ulrich, PhD, MS

Mary Playdon, PhD, MPH, nutritional epidemiologist and cancer epidemiologist at Huntsman Cancer Institute and Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition & Integrative Physiology (NUIP) at the University of Utah (the U), Neli Ulrich, PhD, MS, Chief Scientific Officer and Executive Director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center, Huntsman Cancer Institute and Professor, Population Health Sciences in the School of Medicine, and Scott Summers, PhD, co-director of the Diabetes & Metabolism Research Center (UDMRC), and department Chair and Distinguished Professor of NUIP at the U, received a $5 million grant to study the link between obesity and colorectal cancers.

Playdon specializes in nutrition and cancer epidemiology. Her research centers on diet and obesity's role in the development and prognosis of cancer. "As an Early-Stage Investigator, this grant is an amazing opportunity because I'll be networking with some of the best researchers in the country, working on metabolism and cancer," says Playdon.

The National Cancer Institute reports that colorectal cancer is the third-most common cancer in both men and women. Obesity is one of the most common risk factors. Playdon, Ulrich and Summers have been internationally renowned leaders in the field of how obesity and energy balance link to cancer development. They found that ceramides, a type of fat that builds up with obesity, play an important role in predicting obesity-related cancer risk.

"With obesity, you can accumulate excess ceramides. They accumulate in tissues where they are not designed to be stored, like the heart, liver, and pancreas," says Playdon. "That buildup can lead to the development of metabolic dysfunction and cardiometabolic diseases. We became interested in ceramides and their relevance to colorectal cancer since this cancer type is obesity related."

Summers has spent most of his life studying how the body processes nutrients and how they impact health. He emphasizes the importance of ceramides in his research. "If we can block ceramide production, it prevents diabetes and heart disease. If we can block production of ceramides, we may be able to find a way to block certain types of obesity-linked cancers."

Part of the grant will help the team develop a test that can help detect certain cancers earlier. Another exciting development is a partnership with a biotechnology company with Centaurus Therapeutics. "We are working with them to develop drugs that may reduce ceramides within the next five years," says Summers.

Altogether, the grant supports three major projects: studies in large, epidemiologic cohorts, studies in the Utah Bariatric Surgery cohort led by co-investigator Anna Ibele, MD, associate professor of surgery, and animal and organoid experiments. All projects focus on dissecting the role of ceramides in the metabolic dysfunction that underlies colorectal cancer.

Ulrich is an international leader in the epidemiology of colorectal cancer, and has extensive experience building clinical cohorts. This expertise will be leveraged to expand the Utah Bariatric Surgery Cohort to understand mechanisms linking obesity to cancer.

This grant is also part of something much bigger. Funding has been approved for four other universities, making this grant part of an NIH consortium focused on obesity and metabolism, and their impact on cancer. "This grant demonstrates the successful partnership of the Diabetes and Metabolism Research Center, College of Health, and Huntsman Cancer Institute," says Summers. "This is a huge win for all parties and our collaborative efforts."

Playdon reiterates the role that collaboration will play in this research. "We'll be sharing resources and doing pilot studies. It's going to drive a lot of new, innovative research."

Studies are supported by the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute, including P30 CA042014, and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

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Huntsman Cancer Institute
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About Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah (the U) is the National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center for Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming. With a legacy of innovative cancer research, groundbreaking discoveries, and world-class patient care, we are transforming the way cancer is understood, prevented, diagnosed, treated, and survived. Huntsman Cancer Institute focuses on delivering a cancer-free frontier to all communities in the area we serve. We have more than 300 open clinical trials and 250 research teams studying cancer at any given time. More genes for inherited cancers have been discovered at Huntsman Cancer Institute than at any other cancer center. Our scientists are world-renowned for understanding how cancer begins and using that knowledge to develop innovative approaches to treat each patient’s unique disease. Huntsman Cancer Institute was founded by Jon M. and Karen Huntsman.

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