David Soto-Pantoja, Ph.D.

Funded by the Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Research Fund

Our immune system operates on a balance of cells that can destroy infected or cancerous tissue and cells that prevent attacking healthy tissue. This balance is affected during cancer where cells that attack the tumor become inactivated. This allows further growth, cancer spread (metastasis) and eventual death of the patient. To address this problem researchers have developed drugs known as immune checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs activate T cells, a type of immune cell, to attack the tumor. Cancer patients treated with these drugs have seen major increases in survival. However, due to these drugs tipping the balance to a more active immune system, it can cause harmful side effects. These side effects cause interruptions in treatment plans which can result in disease progression. Currently, we do not have tests in the clinic that are able to predict these side effects. Therefore, there is an urgent need to understand how these side effects develop. Cancer cells consume abnormal levels of nutrients and release factors that can be sensed by blood circulating cells. We believe that these changes can be sensed by mitochondria. The mitochondria are organelles in cells that regulates energy metabolism. With new technological advancements, we can measure how this organelle changes in function in patients’ blood cells. We propose to test how patient blood cells energy changes. We predict that patients that develop side effects will have a lower cellular energy levels. Our study will provide a marker to predict side effects before they develop. We will also study genes that regulate cell energy metabolism to identify drug targets aimed at reducing the onset of side effects. Therefore, our studies will provide a personalized approach to cancer treatment to improve outcomes while preserving their quality of life.

Zachary Schug, Ph.D.

Funded by Hooters of America, LLC

The Schug laboratory is interested in understanding the way a cancer feeds itself in order to support its growth. The amounts and types of foods that cancers consume can be very different from the ones that our bodies normally use. For this reason, we believe that these differences can be used as new targeted treatment options for cancer patients. We have identified a specific food that is uniquely used by cancers to fuel their growth. Our goal is to create drugs that can block cancer’s ability to feed on this food. In addition, we are exploring the idea of combining this drug with other available treatments to improve patient survival. This research is important because it looks to block behaviors that are unique to cancer and therefore spares the body from harmful side effects. Furthermore, our results suggest that this food source is used by nearly all types of cancer. Because of this, we believe that our research is likely to make a major impact on the lives of many different cancer patients.

Viviana Risca, Ph.D.

Liposarcoma is a cancer that affects approximately 1000 new people per year in the United States and primarily targets adults over the age of 50. Although some cases are successfully cured with surgery if caught early, patients traditionally had few options if the cancer came back or if surgery did not eradicate it, because standard chemotherapy and radiation therapy were not effective. A new class of drugs called CDK4/6 inhibitors has recently begun to change the prospects of these patients. These drugs stop cancer cells from dividing without killing them. In some patients, the same drugs cause the cells to enter what is called senescence: the cells never resume dividing, even when the drug is removed. Senescence normally occurs in cells whose DNA has been damaged, so this exciting new form of senescence called SAGA (senescence after growth arrest), that is triggered by a CDK4/6 inhibitor, is not as well understood. I am working with a collaborator who has begun to study SAGA in liposarcoma tumor cells. I am an expert in mapping how DNA is folded inside the cell nucleus to regulate which genes are expressed (turned on). I propose to use my mapping tools to study how the structure of the genome in tumor cells helps cells to decide whether to enter or stay in SAGA, what genes to turn on, and how we might control these genes using other drugs that can be combined with CDK4/6 inhibitors.

Ferdinando Pucci, Ph.D.

Liquor, tobacco and human papilloma virus (HPV) infection are major causes of head and neck cancer (HNC). Adult males often contract HPV infection via oral sex. People carrying HPV are at higher risk of developing HNC. Current HPV vaccines do not work in people already infected or in cancer patients. In the U.S., one in four persons are HPV positive. Thus, HNC will remain an important health problem for decades because of the high number of currently infected people. The major goal of our research is to design a cancer vaccine that works after disease onset.

Vaccination works by prodding the immune system to make protective antibodies. Our previous research suggests that antibodies against tumors are present for a short time as cancer grows. Now, we aim to learn how antibodies against tumors are made. We will use this knowledge to develop safe vaccine therapies to cure existing disease. Our approach is different because current immune therapies target cellular immunity, that is T cells, whereas we aim to exploit humoral immunity, that is B cells and antibodies.

This work will provide key data to push a patient’s immune system to make more anti-cancer antibodies and cure their disease. These new therapies will avoid marring head and neck surgeries and thus will improve how patients function. Importantly, our therapeutic approach can be extended to any type of cancer.

Yanxin Pei, Ph.D.

Funded by Trea and Kristen Turner

Medulloblastoma (MB) is a common form of brain cancer and the leading cause of cancer-related death and injury in children. One subtype of MB (MYC-amplified MB) occurs in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls movement. However, MB often spreads to other parts of the brain and spinal cord. In roughly one-third of patients, MB has already spread when they are diagnosed. In patients that develop MB more than once, most of them have tumors beyond the brain. The current treatment is radiation of the entire brain and spinal cord, followed by high-dose chemotherapy. This is very harmful to a child’s developing brain and not effective for the spread tumors. New and improved therapies are greatly needed.

Understanding how MB spreads will help researchers develop new treatments and prevention plans. LDHA is an enzyme that plays an important role in tumor development and spread. In healthy tissue, LDHA levels are low. In tumor samples, LDHA levels are extremely high. Blocking LDHA may slow cancer without damaging healthy tissue. Our goal is to discover in the laboratory if targeting LDHA can prevent and treat MB that has spread. Then we will develop clinical trials so that children suffering from this horrible disease can have better results.

Christopher Ott, Ph.D.

Patients with leukemia require new and better medicines. While current drug treatments can often clear most leukemia cells from the body, too often the disease will become resistant. We believe that it is important to find new drugs that target the parts of cancer cells that control how and when specific cancer genes are turned on or off. These systems work at regions of our genome called ‘enhancers’. Enhancers represent the most important circuits of our genome by coordinating what genes are on or off. In cancers like leukemia these circuits are broken. This leads to an altered state of unrestrained growth, survival under stress, and resistance to drugs. In leukemia cells there are many mutations in genes that change how enhancers work, but few drugs to target them. We need a complete toolbox of enhancer-targeting drugs and we are making significant progress – but more work is needed to understand how these drugs work in order to identify the patients most likely to benefit. Our goals with this project are to use new genomics tools to study the effects of a new class of enhancer-targeting drugs that directly block critical signaling factors. These drugs have not yet been studied in leukemia, and we expect that our efforts will lead to future use of this promising new type of medicine.

Shruti Naik, Ph.D.

Inflammation is major risk factor for cancer and is directly linked to at least 20% of all cancers. Our epithelial tissues, such as the gut, lungs and skin, routinely experience injuries and infections that cause inflammation. A vast majority of inflammatory reactions resolve to restore tissue health. Many studies have examined the role of chronic (non-resolving) inflammation in cancer formation and progression. However, how routine acute or resolving inflammation influences cancer formation has not been closely studied.

We have previously shown that acute inflammation fundamentally changes tissue immune environments and epithelial stem cells. This process, called “inflammatory training”, is known to improve responses to pathogens, vaccine efficacy and, we find, enhance tissue regeneration. Using models of squamous cell carcinoma, a deadly cancer that can develop on many epithelial surfaces, we examine how inflammatory training impacts the initiation of tumors. We will study both the tumor forming cells and their microenvironment to determine exactly which factors are changed by acute inflammation that make tissues hospitable to cancer cells. In doing so, we seek to unearth fundamental knowledge of how tumors form and use this information to develop strategies for early intervention to stop this devastating disease in its tracks.

Vincent Luca, Ph.D.

Funded by the Constellation Gold Network Distributors

Over the past several years, immunotherapy has emerged as a highly effective treatment for cancer. In contrast to chemotherapy, which kills cancer cells with toxic chemicals, immunotherapy teaches a patient’s immune system to attack tumors. As current immunotherapy treatments are only successful in~ 30% of cases, scientists are actively searching for ways to create new classes of immunotherapy drugs. One promising treatment works by deactivating proteins that serve as “off-switches” for the immune system. However, we do not understand how several of these switches carry out their functions on the molecular level.

My research group is using two different methods to guide the development of next-generation immunotherapies. Our first strategy is to use a high-resolution imaging technique called x-ray crystallography to “see” how different types of off-switch proteins send signals. By visualizing these molecules on the atomic scale, our goal is to obtain molecular blueprints that can teach us how to design more effective drugs. For our second strategy, we will use these blueprints to create decoy proteins that can block incoming signals from reaching immune receptors. These decoys will then be used to prevent the natural off-switch proteins from shutting down the immune response. Initially, the decoys will be used to re-activate immune cells in a laboratory setting. However, if these tests are successful, our long-term goal is to proceed to clinical trials in melanoma patients.

Ji Yeon Kim, Ph.D.

Funded by the Constellation Gold Network Distributors

Cancer is a disease of uncontrolled cell growth. As the disease advances, the cancer can leave the original site and spread to other parts of the body. The ability to grow and invade is energetically costly though. Thus, cancer cells will modify their metabolism to meet these high energy requirements. This includes aggressively using nutrients to produce more energy (ATP), making building blocks for growth (protein, plasma membranes, DNA) and finding ways to overcome metabolic stress (e.g., reactive oxygen species). In other words, if we can identify metabolic changes that occur only in cancer, then impacting the altered metabolic pathways could enable us to selectively kill cancer cells and not impact normal cells.

We are interested in the metabolism of the sugar molecules fructose and mannose. Cells generate mannose-related metabolites from fructose. We discovered that the balance between fructose and mannose is important when lung cancer becomes aggressive. Only these aggressive lung cancer cells were killed when the conversion of fructose to mannose was disrupted. This project will examine how fructose-mannose metabolism is changed when lung cancer becomes aggressive. We will also determine why this metabolic pathway is critical to keep these cancer cells alive. To accomplish the task, we will remove a critical enzyme in fructose -mannose metabolism, and then utilize a series of experiments to characterize the metabolism of these cancer cells. If successful, this study will provide clues as to why drinking soda (fructose) can increase cancer risk while consuming mannose slows tumor growth. Ultimately, we want to answer whether targeting this sugar pathway can help treat patients.

Rodney Infante, M.D., Ph.D.

Funded by the Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Research Fund

Cancer cachexia is a wasting disease with significant fat and muscle loss occurring in 1/3 of all patients with cancer and causing 1/3 of all cancer patient deaths. It is also makes patients not want to eat. Cancer patients with cachexia live half as long as patients with the same cancers without cachexia. These patients have a poor quality of life which prevents them from taking medications to treat their cancer as well. Currently there are no treatments for this wasting disease. Therefore, clinicians often use medications that are not approved by the government to treat cancer cachexia with little benefit.

We aimed to better understand how cancers can cause cachexia wasting in order to create new medications for this disease. Our research has identified a molecule made by cancers that causes fat breakdown and causes decreased food intake. These cancer-secreted factors do this by acting directly on the fat and the part of the brain that controls food intake. These factors also reprogram the fat to secrete other factors that also affect the brain’s appetite center. We believe the combination of these events is responsible for the wasting seen in these cancer patients. Our research proposal will try to identify how these molecules affect the fat tissue and the brain to cause cancer cachexia to help us develop new medications for this under-treated disease. Creating a treatment for cancer cachexia will improve cancer patients’ quality of life and overall life span.

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