Corina Antal, PhD

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers because it is very difficult to treat. There are only a few treatment options available, and they do not work very well for most patients. We propose to find new therapies by studying how certain molecules, called RNA-binding proteins (RBPs), contribute to pancreatic cancer growth. RBPs are important because they control how genes are translated into proteins and ensure that the right genes are expressed at the right time and in the right amounts. When they are not working properly, RBPs can contribute to cancer development. For example, how much of an RBP is made can be affected by certain changes in the cancer cells, like how genes are turned on and off. Additionally, how an RBP works can be affected by cancer-specific modifications to its protein structure. Our research will focus on understanding what goes wrong with RBPs in cancer and how we can fix it. We will determine which RBPs and which cancer-specific modifications of RBPs are important for tumor growth and drug resistance. This will help us find answers that could lead to new therapies for pancreatic cancer patients.

Shiri Gur-Cohen, PhD

Funded with support from the Michael Toshio Cure for Cancer Foundation

When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, they start treatment hoping to get rid of the unhealthy cells. But some cancers, including a common and aggressive type called squamous cell carcinoma, have an unsettling ability to resist treatment. When cancer cells escape therapy, patients may find that the tumor comes back after initially going away and that it starts to spread. Drug resistance is the main reason that cancers have been so difficult to eliminate. We know that genetic changes in healthy cells can cause cancer to form, but these don’t tell us why some cancer patients don’t respond well to treatment. My lab is developing new ways to observe how the surrounding healthy tumor environment is helping cancer cells resist therapy. We found that drug-resistant tumor cells rely on their connections with lymphatic vessels, typically considered as the waste drains of the body. Using a model of skin cancer, we are proposing a new tool to track cancer cells in their natural habitat to find how lymphatic vessels shield and protect the cancer cells. By targeting the supportive lymphatic network, we hope to prevent cancer cells from surviving therapy. We believe that our findings will lead to new ways to treat cancers and eliminating cancer relapse as a treatment fallout.

Bingfei Yu, PhD

Funded by Hooters

T cell therapy, like CAR-T, utilizes our body’s own immune defense to fight against cancer. While CAR-T therapy has worked well for some types of blood cancers, it faces challenges in solid tumors like breast cancer. One problem is that CAR-T cells don’t kill cancer cells effectively in the suppressive environment of solid tumors although they can target them. They can also cause harmful side effects by over-releasing cytokines in the body. Another challenge is that making CAR-T cells from a patient’s blood takes a lot of time and money. To overcome these challenges, my lab is developing programmable viral particles that can target tumor like CAR-T cells while bypassing the limitations of CAR-T therapy. In this project, we will engineer CAR-T mimic viruses that can target breast cancer cells and deliver gene circuits to them. These gene circuits can make cancer cells suicide or reprogram them to turn “cold” tumor “hot”. The unique feature of these viral particles lies in their ability to target and rewire tumor environment, their ease of manufacturing, and compatibility with evolving gene circuit technologies. We hope that these innovative anti-tumor viruses will become a versatile and accessible treatment that can synergize with other therapies to enhance cancer treatment.

Deepshika Ramanan, PhD

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women. Most people that get colorectal cancer are not genetically predisposed and while the causes are not clear there are three key players in the intestine: 1) immune cells, 2) microbes, and 3) environmental factors such as diet. How these players interact to determine cancer risk needs to be understood. We recently found that mothers can shape intestinal microbes and immune cells for multiple generations by influencing diet in early life (breastmilk). Our big question is, Can mothers protect their offspring from developing colorectal cancer by shaping their immune system? We will use mouse models to address maternal influence on multigenerational colorectal cancer susceptibility. Using a multi-omics approach, we will study the mechanisms of how breastmilk factors shape intestinal microbes and immune cells and protect from colorectal cancer. Our studies will provide the much-needed insight into immune cell-microbe-diet interactions and their role in cancer initiation and progression, and in the future we could harness protective factors in breastmilk to prevent or treat colorectal cancer.

Matthew Griffin, PhD

Abeloff V Scholar*

In just over the past 10 years, new drugs that improve our own immune system’s ability to clear tumor cells have become an incredibly powerful class of cancer treatments. These therapies known as immune checkpoint inhibitors or ICIs work broadly against many different tumors, providing hope for many patients to better fight off their cancer. However, each patient is unique, and ICIs can work better for some patients than others. There are many reasons for these differences, including a person’s genetics, their type of cancer, and their environment. Recently, studies including our own have shown that microbes in our bodies also affect how well ICIs stop the growth of tumors. In our lab, we aim to understand how these microbes function during cancer treatment. We focus on how microbes make molecules that stimulate our immune system, which work with ICIs to fully activate tumor-fighting cells. In our work sponsored by The V Foundation, we will find new enzymes to make these active molecules. Using these enzymes, we will build better probiotics and test whether they can help to clear ICI-resistant tumors. Together, these studies will advance our long-term goals to understand how gut microbes affect cancer treatment and to generate new bio-based therapies that improve outcomes for cancer patients.

Zhaohui Gu, PhD

This research is focused on better understanding and improving treatments for a specific kind of blood cancer, known as B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or B-ALL. Although the treatment for childhood B-ALL has been greatly improved, long-term survival for adult patients is still under 50%. Our research showed that about 13% of adult B-ALL patients have mutations in PAX5 gene, which is critical for B-cell development. Two B-ALL subtypes are defined by PAX5 mutations: PAX5alt and PAX5 P80R. Surprisingly, survival rates vary greatly between these two subtypes (30% vs. 65%), which suggests that different genetic characteristics are involved.
The goal of our research is to better understand the biological changes and genetic markers linked to B-ALL from different PAX5 mutations. Based on our preliminary study, we believe that certain PAX5 mutations block normal B-cell development, thus creating cells that are more likely to develop into leukemia. Our objectives are to 1) Explore how PAX5 mutations influence the normal DNA patterns and gene activities in B cells, and 2) Investigate how these mutations drive leukemia development step by step.
We anticipate that our work will shed light on how PAX5 mutations disrupt B-cell development, thereby initiating leukemia. Our results will provide a comprehensive insight into understanding PAX5 mutations in B-ALL. This will enhance our knowledge about the role of PAX5 mutations and the mechanisms in disease initiation and clinical outcomes. Understanding these mechanisms could pave the way for more effective, targeted therapies for this high-risk leukemia subtype in adult patients.

David Schlaepfer, PhD

One of the biggest challenges to extending patient survival from recurrent ovarian cancer is to understand how these tumors can “hide” from detection by cells of the immune system. Immunotherapy involves treatments that use the body’s own immune system to help fight cancer. Despite successes in other cancer types, immunotherapy treatments for ovarian tumors have had limited success in promoting patient survival. Our work builds upon the idea that ovarian tumors upregulate immune “protective” molecules and that these provide a “shield” against immune cell attack. We have found that the activity of a protein (FAK) within ovarian tumor cells drives protection signals and that the combination of chemotherapy blocking FAK (weakening the shield) with immunotherapy resulted in tumor shrinkage. Mouse survival was associated with the gathering of immune cells within and nearby tumor sites in the process of tumor killing. In mice, we have also identified measurable markers that circulate in blood, the presence of which increased as tumors were being attacked by immune cells. In this proposal, we will treat mice with a novel combination of tumor- and immune-targeting therapies and will validate the timing and extent of marker changes in tissues and blood as the tumor shrinks. A clinical trial to test this novel treatment combination and marker evaluation is proposed. The benefit of measuring markers in blood is that this does not involve surgery and that this may provide the clinician with early insights of patient response.

David Oh, MD, PhD

Funded by the Constellation Brands Gold Network Distributors

Bladder cancer is a lethal disease with limited treatments. While we know that we can turn on patients’ own immune system to fight this cancer, using treatments called immunotherapies, most patients do not respond. We have been working on developing better immunotherapies that turn on a new kind of “killer” immune cell that can attack bladder tumors but has not been targeted before. With the support of the V Foundation, we will study samples from bladder cancer patients who received immunotherapy in a clinical trial. We will perform a deep dive into their tumors to see what other kind of cells and genetic changes make up the “neighborhood” that talks to these killer immune cells. We hope that this will provide key direction for a near-term clinical trial for bladder cancer patients who may benefit from a novel treatment targeting these killer cells. This will benefit bladder cancer patients in need by helping them live longer while also relieving the suffering from this disease.

Roger Lo, MD, PhD

Today oncologists have in their arsenal highly active and precise systemic therapies but often times cannot predict which patients would benefit the most. A major contributor to this knowledge gap is the cancer’s ability to resist therapies. Here, we will focus on malignant melanoma, an aggressive type of skin cancer, where two major precision-oncology therapies were first developed. One targets the so-called ‘MAPK cancer pathway’ that sustains the growth of many cancer types, not just melanoma. The other consists of immune checkpoint blockade (ICB) therapy, which unleashes the body’s cancer-killing immune cells and has been approved in >30 cancer types. In patients with melanoma, >70% and >40% of patients respond initially to MAPK targeted and ICB therapies, respectively. However, after initial responses, ~20-40% of patients experience relapse due to their melanomas developing resistance to therapies. In this study, we dissect how melanomas evolve resistance so that we can prevent resistance. In response to therapies, melanoma and other cancers diversify their genetic makeup, creating new species, and this diversity increases their chance of survival or ‘fitness’ through Darwinian natural selection. We will identify ways in which melanomas diversify in response to these two pillars of modern-day cancer treatment in order to construct new therapies to prevent cancers from coming back. Preventing resistance will spare patients from the emotional and physical tolls of clinical relapses and surgical and radiation therapies to control resistant tumors. Ultimately, preventing resistance will improve the patients’ quality and quantity of life and reduce financial tolls.

Christina Curtis, PhD

Funded with support from Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of York

While there are an increasing number of treatments for breast cancer, a sizeable number of patients develop resistance to these agents and experience disease recurrence. These numerous therapies have been enabled by our deepening understanding of the biology of breast cancer at the molecular and cellular levels, which continues to advance as a result of powerful technologies. To date most treatments have focused on targeting the molecular drivers present within tumor cells, it is increasingly apparent that the effective treatment of aggressive tumors, will necessitate strategies that harness the patient’s immune system to detect and eradicate tumor cells. Such immunotherapies have been highly effective in other tumor types, but their use has lagged breast cancer as this tumor type is thought to be immune cold.  Here we perform detailed studies of breast tumor samples from patients enrolled clinical trials evaluating the efficacy of novel targeted and immunotherapeutic strategies in both early-stage and advanced breast cancers with the goal of uncovering the molecular hallmarks of tumors that respond to these agents, as well as those that do not. These studies harness powerful new technologies to study tumor tissue in its native context, while preserving spatial relationship between tumor cells and surrounding immune and stromal cells.  This approach will uncover molecular interactions that can be exploited to overcome resistance and to optimize therapies across different subgroups of disease.

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