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Research Highlights for January 2023

Read Time: 4 minutes

Research Highlights

Huntsman Cancer Institute research highlights shine the spotlight on new discoveries and cutting-edge research. Recently, investigators received grants to study a new type of immunotherapy for breast cancer and support cancer risk education for young adults in rural counties. Also, a new discovery is opening the door to understanding how normal lung cells turn into cancer, nurses are creating an innovative way to track pneumonia symptoms in multiple myeloma patients, and researchers have discovered a link between colorectal cancer patient biomarkers.

Cancer immunotherapy on a cell level
Cancer immunotherapy on a cell level

Discovering a new immunotherapy for metastatic breast cancer

Despite new and emerging immunotherapies, there is still no answer for breast cancer. Alana Welm, PhD, senior director of basic science at Huntsman Cancer Institute and professor of oncological sciences at the University of Utah (the U), recently received grants from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the Susan G. Komen Foundation to try and find that answer. Welm and her team discovered a protein called RON kinase that regulates an immune response to tumors. When taking RON kinase away in mice, the immune system was activated and attacked the cancer. This research opens the door to finding a medication that helps the immune system eliminate breast cancer.

Plaque at four corners

Providing risk prevention to emerging adults in rural areas

The National Cancer Institute recently awarded a grant to cancer centers and hospitals serving the four corners region of the United States. Deanna Kepka, PhD, MPH, David Wetter, PhD, and Echo Warner, PhD, MPH, along with researchers from the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, the University of Arizona Cancer Center, and the University of Colorado Cancer Center, will teach young adults, ages 18-26, about cancer risks through social media. David Buller, PhD, researcher from Klein Buendell in Colorado, and Andrew Sussman, PhD, associate director for community outreach and engagement at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center, are the main principal investigators. The campaign will target young adults in rural counties, and inform them of risk factors like infrequent physical activity, an unhealthy diet, nicotine use, alcohol intake, ultraviolet radiation exposure, and resistance to the HPV vaccine. The team aims to teach them on Facebook, utilizing private groups to find emerging trends and personalize content. 

Understanding how benign lung tumors can transform into cancer

Martin McMahon, PhD, senior director for preclinical research and co-leader of the experimental therapeutics program at Huntsman Cancer Institute and dermatology professor at the U, leads a team that has discovered how normal lung cells turn cancerous. The study, spanning 13 years of research and an extensive group of international collaborators, is published in Cancer Research. BRAFV600E is a subtype of human lung cancer. However, when BRAFV600E is expressed in normal lung cells of mice, it promotes only the growth of small, non-malignant tumors, which rarely progress to lung cancer. Because of this, McMahon and his team became interested in finding the genes that turned these tumors cancerous. To do so, they used a technique called Sleeping Beauty Transposon Mutagenesis to turn certain genes on and off in mice. This allowed McMahon and colleagues to identify a sizable panel of genes that, in combination with BRAFV600E, drives the progression of malignant lung cancer.

Male nurse takes patient's blood pressure

Nurses create an algorithm to monitor and prevent pneumonia in multiple myeloma patients

Low white blood cell counts caused by cancers or treatments that affect bone marrow, like multiple myeloma, puts patients at risk of getting pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia (PJP). PJP is a fungal infection that develops in the lungs and most commonly affects immunocompromised cancer patients. Previously, nurses tracked patients individually to determine who needed more care. When Carrie Bellerive, BSN, RN, BMTCN, and her team noticed unexpected PJP infections, they collaborated with the multiple myeloma care team and built an algorithm to accurately determine which patients were at highest risk and needed intervention.

Scientists discover the link between inflammatory and blood vessel development biomarkers and distress in colorectal cancer patients

Psychological distress is common in patients who have colorectal cancer. In a study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, Clara Lindley, an undergraduate student, and Jennifer Ose, PhD, researcher at Huntsman Cancer Institute, found biomarkers within the blood linked to stress. In partnership with the University of Heidelberg in Germany, Lindley and Ose found an increase in biomarker concentrations was associated with future risk of distress in colorectal cancer patients 12 months after their surgery. This is one of the first studies to investigate this relationship in prospectively followed patients with colorectal cancer.

Media Contact

Heather Simonsen
Public Affairs Senior Manager
Huntsman Cancer Institute
801 581-3194

About Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah 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 the highest standard of care and the most advanced treatments, ensuring world-class cancer care is available 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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