Neha Goel, MD

Funded in partnership with Miami Dolphins Foundation

Women who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods experience shorter breast cancer survival rates. One cause may be stress from social adversity. Social adversity includes exposure to violent crime, poverty, housing instability, and more. Studies have shown that this stress can lead to gene responses that increase inflammation and depress immune response. This can result in higher rates of metastasis (the spread of cancer cells to another part of the body) and shorter breast cancer survival. Previous research from our team has found that women in disadvantaged neighborhoods show these gene responses associated with worse outcomes. This study builds on this past research with a population that is both larger and more diverse. It will validate our previous findings and help us begin to identify how neighborhood disadvantage, stress, and more aggressive genes are related. It will set the stage for future interventions that can address this negative impact and reduce disparities in breast cancer survival rates.

Patricia Jones, MD, MSCR

Funded in partnership with Miami Dolphins Foundation

Liver cancer is deadly. Hepatocellular Carcinoma, or HCC, is the most common type of liver cancer. There are significant racial differences (disparities) in how long people with HCC survive. Black people with liver cancer do not live as long as White people. Also, Black patients are less likely to receive treatment. Previous studies have been unable to explain why these differences exist. We started a research study to learn about various factors that might contribute to these disparities. When we approach patients to participate, many say that they are too overwhelmed. Some patients do not understand what is happening when they are first diagnosed. In this study, we will ask patients and caregivers what needs we might be able to help with. We will also ask healthcare staff and patient advocates to identify what needs patients have. Together with patients, caregivers, advocates and medical staff, we will create a program that helps high-risk patients to navigate the health care system and provides extra support to the patients who need it most. This study is unique because we will train lay people to work as navigators, rather than nurses. By building a relationship between the patient and navigator, we will be better able to meet our patients’ needs. We expect this program to increase the number of patients that come to their appointments and get cancer treatment. This program may increase patients’ willingness to participate in research studies, which could dramatically improve our ability to understand and eliminate disparities in survival.

Maria Figueroa, MD

Funded in partnership with Miami Dolphins Foundation

Like computers, the cells that make up our bodies also have specialized ‘software’ that runs their specific functions. When cells in the blood become cancerous -known as leukemia-, they hijack this biological software. By doing this, the leukemia cells can grow very fast and quickly multiply. Despite the many different types of leukemia that exist, they all share certain defects in their biological software. We call these shared defects a ‘biological common denominator’ across all of them. As part of this biological common denominator of leukemia we have identified the abnormal loss of PDZD2. Although PDZD2 is a gene capable of stopping the growth of other types of cancers it has never been studied in leukemia. Normally, PDZD2 is present in healthy blood cells. However, when blood cells become malignant, they lose PDZD2. We will explore how loss of PDZD2 helps turn healthy blood cells into leukemia. Importantly, we will determine if treatment of cells with a synthetic version of PDZD2 can help stop the growth of leukemia cells. Our long-term goal is to develop a novel way to treat patients with leukemia. We expect that this synthetic PDZD2 will kill the leukemia cells while having no effect on healthy blood cells.

John Ligon, MD

Funded by the Dick Vitale Pediatric Cancer Research Fund

Recent advances have shown that it is possible to use a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer. Osteosarcoma, the most common bone cancer in children and young adults, is one cancer type that has not responded to immune-based treatments. Most patients who relapse die when the osteosarcoma spreads to the lung, and it is critically important to design new treatments to prevent these young lives from being lost.

Dr. Ligon’s team analyzed osteosarcoma samples from human patients and found that while immune cells are present in osteosarcoma lung tumors, they are kept at the outside of the tumor because the tumor has several ways to “exclude” these immune cells. In collaboration with Dr. Sayour, Dr. Ligon’s team proposes to use a new immune-based therapy called an RNA nanoparticle vaccine, which may be able to reprogram the tumor and allow immune cells to kill the cancer.

Based on promising data from the lab and from treating small animals such as dogs with osteosarcoma, Dr. Ligon proposes a clinical trial of this treatment in human patients with osteosarcoma which has spread to the lungs. He proposes to establish that this treatment is safe and find the right dose for future clinical trials. He will also perform studies on blood and tumor samples to understand how the vaccine works against osteosarcoma. This clinical trial will study a new treatment for a cancer that currently is incurable and help us understand how this new treatment works to help design future studies.

Hatem Soliman, MD

Funded by Hooters of America, LLC

The goal of this project is to understand experiences of racial and ethnic minority patients with cancer with clinical trials. This is an important topic because racial and ethnic diversity in cancer clinical trials is low. This project will help us to understand difficulties patients have in joining clinical trials. It will also help us to understand reasons that make participating in a trial easier for patients. This project will allow patients to share their views on steps we can take to improve diversity in our trials. We will also compare feedback from medical oncologists and trial coordinators. This project will lead to the creation of an intervention to address to issues identified in this study. If successful, our goal will be to test out intervention in other settings.

Duane Mitchell, MD, PhD

Funded in Collaboration with the University of Florida Foundation

Brain cancer is now the leading cause of cancer-related death in children, due to the significant improvements in outcomes for children with more common cancers such as leukemia. This research proposal advances a novel immunotherapy treatment for medulloblastoma (MB), the most common malignant brain tumor in children. We have pioneered a treatment platform for pediatric brain tumors called adoptive cellular immunotherapy, which involves expanding tumor-reactive ‘killer T cells’ to large numbers outside of a patient and delivering these potent immune cells back to children with resistant brain tumors. This approach is currently undergoing evaluation in first-in-human clinical trials at our center. This project will advance this platform into a next generation approach that uses genomic technology to identify patient-specific antigens expressed in medulloblastoma tumors and specifically isolate and expand T cells recognizing these unique tumor targets (called neoantigens). If the objectives of this study are met, we will be able to significantly enhance the specificity and potency of an already promising platform and rapidly translate our findings into innovative clinical trials for children battling brain cancer.

Luisa Cimmino, PhD

Funded in partnership with Miami Dolphins Foundation

Vitamins play an essential role in keeping our immune system healthy by maintaining normal blood cell production. Certain types of vitamins can also help in the prevention and treatment of blood cancers. Vitamin A has been used for decades to treat a subset of blood cancer patients with defects in a protein that relies on vitamin A for its normal activity. More recently, our work has shown that vitamin C can also stop blood cancers from forming, and slow cancer growth, by maintaining or restoring the activity of a protein known as TET2. Loss of TET2 function causes an increase in the growth of blood cells that drive cancer development. Mutations in TET2 that lower its activity are frequently found in patients with blood cancers. TET2 is also frequently defective in the blood cells of the healthy elderly population that can put them at a much greater risk of developing a blood cancer. The goal of our work is to understand how we can maintain TET2 activity to prevent and block cancers of the blood. Interestingly, vitamin A treatment can increase TET2 levels in cells, which in combination with vitamin C restores TET2 activity more than either treatment alone to stop the growth of blood cancer. Our goal in this study is to model combination treatment strategies of vitamin A and vitamin C to prevent blood cancer formation and growth that can be used as a potential therapy to treat blood cancer patients with a loss in TET2 activity.

Verline Justilien, PhD


Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) accounts for the majority of lung cancer diagnoses and has a very low survival rate. There is a sub-population of cells within NSCLC tumors called cancer stem cells (CSCs) that are highly aggressive. These CSCs are capable of fueling the growth and metastasis of tumors and have been shown to be resistant to current drug treatments for NSCLC. Therefore, CSCs must be eliminated to effectively treat and gain lasting remission in patients with NSCLC. CSCs can communicate with other cells in a tumor by transferring information packaged within small particles called extracellular vesicles (EVs). We hypothesize that the molecules packaged within EVs from CSCs can make non-CSCs within NSCLC tumors more aggressive by increasing their ability to grow and metastasize. We propose to identify the molecules packaged within NSCLC CSC EVs. We also aim to block the function of the molecules within the CSC EVs to prevent the growth of NSCLC cancer cells. Completion of these studies will provide new information about how CSCs function to make NSCLC deadly. In addition, these studies will help in the design of new strategies to eliminate NSCLC CSCs which may provide effective, long-term treatment for NSCLC patients. 

Hatem Soliman, MD

Funded by Hooters of America, LLC

This goal of this project is to develop a new mobile application that will bring together multiple useful functions that will help breast cancer patients who are considering or participating in clinical trials. There are various applications in the market that may do one specific function but very few integrate both patient education resources with tools to help patients manage their participation on clinical trials. This includes keeping track of medication compliance, appointments, and side effects. All of these patient reported outcomes are critical for the successful completion of a clinical trial. A tool that can provide both information to breast cancer patients while helping them be compliant with the clinical trial needs could be a valuable tool as more patients depend on their smartphones and mobile devices on a daily basis.  


Lluis Morey, Ph.D.

Funded in partnership with Miami Dolphins Foundation

It is estimated that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the US. During the last decades, breast cancer survival rates have greatly improvedmainly due to factors such as earlier detection and a better understanding of the disease. There are at least five different type of breast cancer. In this proposal, we will investigate one of the breast cancer subtypes, called estrogen receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer. ER+ breast cancer needs the estrogen to grow. Estrogen is a hormone that is important for sexual and reproductive development, mainly in women. ER+ breast cancer accounts for 70% of breast cancers and is typically treated with drugs designed to slow or stop the growth of cancer that uses estrogen to develop. Although this type of therapy has been shown to reduce the risk of relapse and death from breast cancer, one third of patients develop resistance. This results in the spreading of cancer cells to other organsknown as metastasis. Thus, there is a critical need for identifying new treatments for patients who develop resistance to current therapies. The focus of this proposal is to understand the mechanisms of resistance to therapy and to overcome resistance by using a novel  therapeutic approach. This is the next step towards our overarching goal, which is the identification of new therapeutic opportunities for the treatment of patients with aggressive breast cancer. 

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