The National Cancer Institute awarded more than $2 million to a team at the Wilmot Cancer Institute to continue its study of a gene network that controls cancer progression, with a focus on pancreatic cancer.
The five-year grant will fund a series of new scientific experiments involving a gene known as Plac8. In earlier work, Wilmot investigators showed that by inactivating Plac8 they could stop or slow pancreatic tumor growth in mice and significantly extend survival – making Plac8 an attractive target for drug development.
Principle investigator Hartmut “Hucky” Land, Ph.D., and co-investigator Aram Hezel, M.D., had been studying a wider system of genes and cellular events involved in cancer, when they discovered that Plac8 is a key driver in malignancies but is not essential to the function of normal tissue.
Plac8’s cancer-specific role makes it a viable treatment target, said Land, the director of research and co-direct at Wilmot, and the Robert and Dorothy Markin Professor and Chair of the Department of Biomedical Genetics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.
“The goal is always to find precise interventions that do not impact healthy tissue,” Land said, “and in this case we believe we have a novel opportunity.”
Wilmot’s approach to basic cancer research is to investigate the shared molecular features among many cancers. In this context, the NCI funding also allows Land and Hezel to further investigate Plac8’s link to other cancer-promoting genes, which may confirm its relevance to a variety of other cancer subtypes. Earlier this year the team published an important paper in the journal Cell Reports describing how Plac8 sustains a garbage-recycling process inside cancer cells that allows for the uncontrolled growth of tumors.
However, researchers also recognize that pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (the most common tumor of the pancreas), is an urgent problem for which new treatments are needed. It afflicts about 45,000 people annually and the average five-year survival rate hovers at around 6 percent. Most recent treatment improvements are a result of using different combinations of older drugs.
Hezel, who conducts research and also treats pancreatic cancer patients in the Rochester region, noted that support from patients, families, and community organizations, was instrumental in securing the NCI grant.
For example, funds from the Edelman-Gardner Cancer Research Foundation in Hilton, N.Y.; Pancreatic Cancer Association of Western New York; and the annual Michael F. Contestabile Memorial Golf Tournament, provided the seed money to collect sufficient data to enable a competitive application for the much larger NCI award.
“In an extremely competitive funding environment, we are indebted to our community supporters, and to our patients who continue to inspire us to push for new ways to stop this stubborn and lethal disease,” said Hezel, vice chief of Wilmot’s Division of Hematology and Oncology and a UR associate professor.
The Wilmot Cancer Institute is the Finger Lakes region’s leader for cancer care and research. As part of UR Medicine, Wilmot provides specialty cancer services at the University of Rochester Medical Center and at a network of satellite locations. The Institute also includes a team of 100 scientists who investigate many aspects of cancer, with an emphasis on how best to provide precision cancer care.