UNMC receives $5.3 million grant for pancreatic cancer research

by Karen Burbach, UNMC public affairs | September 29, 2008

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Tony Hollingsworth, Ph.D.
The National Cancer Institute has awarded a $5.3 million, five-year Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant in pancreatic cancer to the UNMC Eppley Cancer Center. UNMC was one of only two programs funded this year in pancreatic cancer.

SPORE grants are large, multidisciplinary federal grants that fund scientific research aimed at bringing new laboratory findings quickly to the clinic. They are highly competitive grants and are sought after by the most prestigious research and medical institutions across the country.

"This is significant for the Eppley Cancer Center and UNMC and is indicative of our ongoing efforts in pancreatic cancer," said Tony Hollingsworth, Ph.D., principal investigator of the grant. "We are excited about this opportunity to undertake a series of translational research projects that are extensions of our basic research program and specifically impact patient care."

"The SPORE grant is of importance to pancreatic cancer patients because it will allow us to conduct novel clinical trials that have been developed, in collaboration with basic scientists who are studying promising strategies, to improve the treatment of pancreatic cancer," said Jean Grem, M.D., co-principal investigator. "The funding will support the translational aspects of each clinical study, which is crucial for understanding how the novel agents are affecting both the patient and the tumor."

Pancreatic cancer is arguably one of the most lethal cancers. Of the 32,000 Americans annually who discover they have pancreatic cancer, more than 95 percent will die within a few years of diagnosis. In the United States, pancreatic cancer is the ninth or 10th most commonly diagnosed cancer (depending on gender), but the fourth leading cause of cancer death in men and women.

More about SPORE grants

SPORE grants were established in 1992 to support translational research, which are studies that apply the lessons of the laboratory to patients and, conversely, use what is learned from patients to advance study of a disease. For more information, visit the NCI Web site at www.spores.nih.nci.gov.

There are no screening tools for pancreatic cancer and the location of the pancreas, deep in the abdomen, hinders early diagnosis. Too often, diagnosis occurs after the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.

"The SPORE grant earned by Dr. Hollingsworth and his colleagues is an outstanding achievement and important milestone for scientific research -- basic, translational, and clinical research -- being done at UNMC and the Eppley Cancer Center," said Ken Cowan, M.D., Ph.D., director of the cancer center. "The National Cancer Institute continues to recognize the important work being done at the Eppley Cancer Center for the people of Nebraska and the entire country."

Including the SPORE grant, the cancer center's pancreatic program receives nearly $15.5 million in external funds, nearly all of which comes from the NCI.

"There are only three SPORES in pancreatic cancer currently funded in the country," Dr. Hollingsworth said. "We've been working together for years to obtain this award. It takes a large coordinated effort to put together this sort of program of research."

Dr. Hollingsworth praised the vision of Dr. Cowan, UNMC Chancellor Harold M. Maurer, M.D., and Vice Chancellor for Research Tom Rosenquist, Ph.D., and lauded the institutional commitment to research.

"Our leadership has created an environment especially conducive to these interactive programs of research," he said.

"Pancreatic cancer remains a puzzling, typically lethal form of cancer," Dr. Rosenquist said. "Our outstanding pancreatic cancer research group headed by Dr. Hollingsworth is widely known for its outstanding work and, as demonstrated by this award, is capable of competing successfully at the highest level for the rare and precious SPORE awards. Investing research dollars in this team is an obvious, excellent decision if there is to be any progress into conquering this dreaded disease.

"I salute the team and as always, salute the director of the Eppley Cancer Center, Dr. Ken Cowan, for his inspirational leadership."

The Eppley Cancer Center SPORE program will consist of the following translational research projects:

  • An immunotherapy protocol to induce the patient's immune system to recognize or attack the pancreatic cancer tumor as if it's a foreign invader. Project leaders: Dr. Hollingsworth, Dr. Grem and Aaron Sasson, M.D.;
  • A clinical trial to determine whether there is an advantage to using a peptide inhibitor of N-cadherin to reduce the growth and spread of tumors and the incidence of metastasis. UNMC researchers have evidence that expression of N-cadherin by human cancer cells results in tumors that are highly aggressive. The peptide inhibitor, however, has reduced the severity of tumors in mice, said researcher Keith Johnson, Ph.D. Project leaders: Dr. Johnson, Peggy Wheelock, Ph.D., and Dr. Grem.;
  • New diagnostic techniques for earlier diagnosis of pancreatic cancer including a simple blood test that detects evidence of pancreatic cancer. Project leaders: Surinder Batra, Ph.D., and Dr. Sasson;
  • A clinical trial to study the effects of a telomerase inhibitor at three levels: in cultured pancreatic cancer cells, in mice bearing pancreatic tumors, and in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer. Telomerase is responsible for the maintenance of telomeres, but the enzyme is absent from normal human cells. This lack of telomerase causes telomeres to shorten and this attrition limits the lifespan of normal cells. Because they tend to express telomerase, said UNMC researcher Michel Ouellette, Ph.D., cancer cells are immortal. Researchers hope that the inhibitor will limit the lifespan of cancer cells and will block the regrowth of residual disease after conventional therapy. Project leaders: Drs. Ouellette and Grem and Jerry Shay, Ph.D., of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

As part of the SPORE, the clinical trials will have staggered starts, but all will be underway within five years.

The SPORE grant also provides partial support for UNMC's tissue bank, directed by Julia Bridge, M.D., and its unique rapid autopsy program, which allows cancer patients to donate entire organs to research.

"It's essentially an organ donation program for people with pancreatic cancer that allows us to obtain a large volume of rarely obtained tissues and enables us to undertake many studies that are not otherwise possible, " Dr. Hollingsworth said. "The scope of our rapid autopsy program and the national recognition it receives is only possible because of the positive attitude and significant volunteer efforts by over 30 of our technicians, students, nurses, residents and faculty."

The grant also will provide a new core in biostatistical support, which will be led by Jane Meza, Ph.D.