CPRIT awards $5.2 million to CTRC researchers

SAN ANTONIO (May 21, 2015) — Researchers at the Cancer Therapy & Research Center at the UT Health Science Center were awarded more than $5 million in grants Wednesday that will help them in projects ranging from examining the on/off switch of a cancer-fighting molecule to preventing liver cancer in a majority Hispanic South Texas population.

“I’m not surprised but I’m delighted,” said CTRC Director Ian M. Thompson Jr., M.D. “These grants demonstrate the breadth and depth of our researchers’ talents at every level.”

Core facility grant for single cancer cell analysis: Tim Huang, Ph.D., professor and chairman of molecular medicine at the Health Science Center and deputy director of the Cancer Therapy & Research Center (CTRC) at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio, $3.3 million

The CTRC already has the foundations of an important core facility doing single-cell analysis, Dr. Huang said, and this grant will allow the CTRC to acquire key pieces that will complete the services offered by the core facility. Those services include isolating and studying single cancer cells from urine and saliva to develop non-invasive methods for detecting cancer. “This will give cancer researchers from throughout the region and beyond access to the latest analytical tools operated by a highly qualified technical team,” he said, “helping them to develop new ways to diagnose, monitor and treat cancer.”

Liver cancer prevention targeting Hepatitis C infection : Barbara J. Turner, M.D., M.S.Ed., M.A., MACP, professor of medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and director of the Center for Research to Advance Community Health (ReACH), $1.5 million

The program to STOP (Screen, Treat, or Prevent) HCC (hepatocellular/liver cancer) will reduce HCC incidence and mortality by implementing a hepatitis C screening and treatment program for low-income populations in 10 Texas counties. This will be coupled with a continuum of care for liver cancer prevention and control. The program draws upon the talents of a multidisciplinary team at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio and the CTRC in partnership with The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Parkland Health and Hospital System and UT Southwestern Cancer Center. STOP HCC will be rolled out in 12 primary care clinics in a large safety net health system in Dallas County and 10 primary care clinics across nine South Texas counties, all of which treat a majority Hispanic population.

Turning on the prevention switch for colon cancer: Rong Li, Ph.D., professor of molecular medicine at the UT Health Science Center, $200,000

An estrogen receptor, ER beta, appears to have an antitumor effect on the development of colon cancer. Dr. Li’s team has been studying ER beta’s activity in breast cancer and have discovered a molecular switch in ER-beta that can turn on its antitumor activity in breast cancer. What they need to know is whether the same switch is also operational for controlling the antitumor activity of ER beta in colon cancer, and if so, whether turning on this switch can prevent colon cancer.

“If our theory is correct, then we can approach this in several ways. We can use small molecule compounds being developed in other projects to turn the switch on,” Dr. Li said. “If so, there is the potential to develop a drug that could target colon cancer in the early stages – when the switch is still functional – to move it to the ‘on’ position.”

Harnessing the body’s defenses: Bruce Nicholson, Ph.D., professor and chair of biochemistry in the School of Medicine at the UT Health Science Center, $200,000
Breast cancer can be treated while it’s still in the breast, but its recurrence, sometimes years later, in other parts of the body is the cause of most mortality from this deadly disease. What the team led by Dr. Nicholson wants to know is how the body keeps the cancer in check for that long — and if that remission can be extended.

“We’re trying to tap the body’s own defenses to prevent recurrence,” Dr. Nicholson said.

This work examines how microRNAs are transferred from healthy bone cells (osteocytes) to metastasized breast cancer cells, suppressing their growth. It appears that this function works for a while, Dr. Nicholson said, but when it stops working is when the cancer recurs, this time in bones or other organs. “If we can understand this process and then prolong the time over which it continues,” he said, “we may be able to extend lifespan of many women.”


The Cancer Therapy & Research Center (CTRC) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is one of the elite academic cancer centers in the country to be named a National Cancer Institute (NCI) Designated Cancer Center, and is one of only four in Texas. A leader in developing new drugs to treat cancer, the CTRC Institute for Drug Development (IDD) conducts one of the largest oncology Phase I clinical drug programs in the world, and participates in development of cancer drugs approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. For more information, visit www.ctrc.net.

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