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VOL. 127 | NO. 247 | Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cancer Research Center Awards Seed Grants

By MICHAEL WADDELL

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The West Clinic, Methodist Healthcare and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center have initiated the dispersal of seed research grants to advance cancer research, education and care for patients in the Memphis area.

The partners recently announced plans for the first $200,000, awarded to four cancer investigators at UTHSC, as well as an additional $50,000 given to residents and fellows to support their cancer research projects. The grants represent a portion of a $35 million overall commitment to cancer care and innovation by the three partners over the next seven years.

“The Methodist, West Clinic, University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center cancer collaborative initiative is meant to embrace research, education and clinical care,” said Dr. David Stern, executive dean of the UT College of Medicine and UTHSC vice chancellor of health affairs. “With cancer, in particular, research very often quite directly informs changes in clinical care. What makes me so pleased about this partnership is that we really are aligned. The kind of collaborative spirit I see should allow us to build this into a cancer center that will make a difference for cancer in Memphis.”

The three cancer center partners launched the new initiative in January and collectively committed roughly $5 million per year until 2018.

“The goal of that money is to recruit additional investigators and clinicians with added value skills,” Stern said. “We are deciding on which areas that we want to make targeted investments, and breast, lung, head and neck cancers are logical targets. In those areas, there will be much larger investments.”

Stern hopes the partnership will be able to invest much more in the future thanks to philanthropy.

“A cancer center really requires a $100 million to $200 million investment over time,” he said. “The $35 million is a wonderful start, and we are exceedingly grateful for it.”

The first seed grants will be used to research skin, breast and pancreatic cancer and provide a starting point for partnerships between basic/translational investigators and clinicians. Four local scientists were chosen from a pool of 14 applicants.

“The four studies are all innovative, and the background and the strength of the previous science supports going the next step,” said Dr. Lee S. Schwartzberg, medical director of The West Clinic for the past 12 years and a member of the review panel for the first round of seed grants. “We hope to fund more projects in the future and potentially go to a six-month funding cycle so we can accommodate more of the very good requests that we received.”

With the newly awarded grants, Dr. Lawrence M. Pfeffer and his research team will work to define new strategies to treat patients with malignant melanoma, a devastating skin disease with limited treatment options.

Dr. Zhaohui Wu will examine how the PARP1-targeting drug may inhibit chemotherapy-activated reactions in patients with triple negative breast cancer, while Dr. Tiffany Seagroves will investigate why those tumor cells deprived of oxygen are more resistant to chemotherapy or radiation, and are more likely to spread to distant regions of the body.

Dr. Wenqing Qi will study the urgent need for novel therapies for patients with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

“We hope the results from the seed grants provide the foundation for larger grants from the National Cancer Institute and other funding agencies,” Stern said.

Approximately $250,000 in seed grants will be awarded per year for each of the seven years.

The West Clinic aligned with Methodist and UTHSC earlier this year.

“We chose to align with Methodist and UTHSC because we were very pleased with the relationship that had developed there, and we thought it would be a ‘win-win’ to be able to share our vision on the hospital side while also becoming more academic by participating with the university,” Schwartzberg said.

ACORN Research LLC, which grew out of The West Clinic, conducts industry-sponsored clinical trials.

“This is a very exciting time for cancer research in Memphis. The awarding of these grants underscores the commitment of leading local health care organizations to find new drugs and therapeutic agents to fight cancer,” said Dr. Edward Stepanski, chief operating officer at ACORN Research, in a prepared statement. “The recipients of these grants are prominent cancer scientists. Our goal is to elevate cancer science locally and ultimately nationally, as well as foster multidisciplinary research between scientists and clinicians. This funding will ensure that resources are dedicated to support cancer research in our community.”

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