In a competitive grant environment, the addition of $13.6 million across multiple fields of study during the first six months of 2022 is noteworthy. But Wilmot Cancer Institute leaders say the more important story is not about money.
“What it really demonstrates is the robust programs we have in place and the full spectrum of research here at Wilmot,” said Director Jonathan Friedberg, M.D., M.M.Sc. “It also speaks to the success we’ve had in our targeted recruiting and career development efforts.”
The scope of the funding is broad. Projects range from basic science probing the bone marrow’s role in supporting leukemia, and how to stop breast cancer cells from making their own antioxidants, for example, to a unique translational study that will benefit older patients who struggle with dementia as well as cancer.
Another significant fact about the new awards: Nearly half of the 12 scientists who received them are early-career investigators or are just beginning to hit the mid-career stage.
“The quality of science among our young people is something to celebrate,” said Hucky Land, Ph.D., Wilmot Deputy Director and a longtime scientific leader at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “It’s extremely promising when you look to the future and the growth of our programs at Wilmot.”
Wilmot receives about $30 million annually to sustain research and research training activities, and the new, peer-reviewed awards to Wilmot faculty will help maintain and grow that amount. Three of the investigators received first-time R01 grants, the original and oldest funding vehicle available through the National Institutes of Health. This type of award is extremely competitive and requires strong preliminary data and goes to scientists with a proven track record of publications. It is an important milestone in the career of a scientist.
Details of the recently funded projects:
- Jeevisha Bajaj, Ph.D., uses advanced technology to study how to interrupt the development of blood cancers by focusing on the tissues and cells that surround tumors. She received a five-year National Cancer Institute grant totaling approximately $2 million. It’s her first R01 as an independent investigator.
- Edward Brown, Ph.D., is working to improve the diagnosis of breast cancer and predict whether it will spread, by using innovative optical technology. The National Science Foundation awarded him $276,000.
- Laura Calvi, M.D., and Roman Eliseev, M.D., Ph.D., are partnering to study the mechanisms by which the bone marrow ages. This is significant because abnormal bone-forming stem cells in the marrow can not only lead to osteoporosis but also support the development of leukemia and other blood diseases. They received a five-year National Institute on Aging grant totaling approximately $2.3 million. Calvi has also been notified that she will soon receive a second large grant to study a different aspect of how cancer develops in the aging bone marrow.
- Michael Giacomelli, Ph.D., invented a novel 3D imaging device that can be used in the operating room to detect whether a tissue sample is cancer. The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering awarded him approximately $328,000 to advance his studies, specifically for melanoma surgery.
- Isaac Harris, Ph.D., is focused on the worst form of breast cancer, known as triple negative disease, and how to block the way those tumors use antioxidants to survive. He received a five-year NCI grant totaling approximately $1.9 million — his first R01 award as an independent investigator.
- Kah Poh (Melissa) Loh, MBBCH, B.A.O., M.S., received a $200,000 career development award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology Cancer Foundation to support a randomized clinical trial for a new tool to improve communication between doctors and older patients with acute leukemia. She has also been notified by the National Institute on Aging that she will soon receive a grant designed for early-career investigators; this project involves analysis of patient blood and bone marrow samples for DNA methylation, a biomarker of biological age.
- Allison Magnuson, D.O., is studying how to improve communication between physicians and older patients. Her five-year National Institute on Aging grant that totals approximately $2.5 million, supports a project to help oncologists deliver better care to their patients who have pre-existing dementia. It is also her first R01 award as an independent investigator.
- Brian Marples, Ph.D., is studying how to target a type of immune cell called macrophages. The aim of the research is to reduce pulmonary injury in lung cancer patients treated with radiation therapy, especially those patients who have recently been exposed to or infected with a virus in the lungs. He received approximately $424,000 from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
- Karen Mustian, Ph.D., M.P.H., with Richard Dunne, M.D., and Po-Ju Lin, Ph.D., are conducting clinical research to improve the understanding of cachexia, a condition that involves significant weight loss and muscle wasting in some cancer patients. They are part of a global team, and received approximately $2.6 million from a funding initiative supported by the NCI known as Cancer Grand Challenges.
- Archibald Perkins, M.D., Ph.D., studies chromosomal abnormalities in blood cancers and received $693,000 from the Department of Defense, which has a long tradition of funding high-impact projects in medical research. He is investigating myelodysplastic syndrome, a pre-leukemia condition.
- Clive Zent, M.D., is evaluating a new drug cocktail in a clinical study for individuals with chronic lymphoblastic leukemia. He received $396,000 from the NIH to conduct correlative laboratory studies to determine if the new drug combination is achieving the intended goals.
Zent’s grant, as well as the grants to Marples and Giacomelli, are known as R21 awards. This is a competitive funding mechanism designed for shorter duration projects that have the potential for high impact. Several other Wilmot investigators also received grant funding from pharmaceutical companies, contracts, and other sources.