Health Science Center researchers win $2 million in cancer research awards

SAN ANTONIO (November 3, 2011) – Four University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio researchers have been awarded grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas, including one to further study the increasing incidence of liver cancer among South Texas Hispanics.

Two of the grants, announced Wednesday afternoon, are individual investigator awards, while two were given under the high impact/high risk category.

“I am incredibly proud of the researchers who earned these major awards from CPRIT,” said Ian M. Thompson, M.D., director of the Cancer Therapy & Research Center at the UT Health Science Center. “The kind of high-level research going on here is clearly recognized by CPRIT. Most importantly, it will transform the care of cancer patients.”

In the individual investigator awards, LuZhe Sun, Ph.D., professor of cellular & structural biology and urology, will receive $875,252 for his work targeting the hedgehog pathway in prostate cancer, while Brad H. Pollock, M.P.H., Ph.D., professor and chairman of epidemiology and biostatistics, was awarded $767,107 to investigate environmental influences in hepatocellular liver cancer in South Texas.

High-risk/high impact award winners include Sunil Sudarshan, assistant professor in the department of urology in the School of Medicine at the Health Science Center, who will receive $199,902 for oncometabolites in renal cancer, and Ricardo Aguiar, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of hematology and medical oncology, was awarded $200,000 for a next-generation sequencing strategy in B-cell malignancies.

The nearly $770,000 grant for Dr. Pollock furthers his investigation of the very high incidence of hepatocellular liver cancer in South Texas. Known risk factors for liver cancer include chronic viral infection with hepatitis B and/or hepatitis C, and lifestyle factors such as alcohol consumption. However, these factors do not necessarily account for the majority of incidence in South Texas. Other conditions especially prevalent in South Texas are suspected to play a role, include obesity and diabetes.

“We also observed higher than expected rates of liver cancer in specific areas of Bexar County that may reflect higher-than-expected levels of aflatoxin in nearby residents,” Dr. Pollock said. While aflatoxin is not usually considered a major contributor to liver cancer in the U.S., there may be more opportunities for exposure through ingestion of aflatoxin-contaminated cornmeal in South Texas.

Dr. Pollock’s team will perform a geographic analysis of the patterns of occurrence in South Texas.

“Given their increasing incidence and still very poor survival, liver cancers are of great public health significance,” Dr. Pollock said. “Identification of risk factors could lead to a significant decrease in the burden of this disease in the South Texas and other populations.”

Dr. Sun will use his $875,000 grant to learn exactly how metastatic prostate cancer becomes resistant to hormone and chemotherapies, and to target that resistance pathway, called a hedgehog signaling pathway.

Patients with metastatic prostate cancer are often treated first with androgen deprivation therapy, but often become resistant to the hormone therapy, and eventually chemotherapy. The goal of Dr. Sun’s research is to show how metastatic prostate cancer becomes resistant to these treatments.

The hedgehog signaling pathway is a cell regulatory process essential for proper embryo development that sometimes becomes reactivated in certain cancers. Dr. Sun’s team will investigate how hedgehog signaling may promote prostate cancer growth and build resistance to hormone and chemotherapy. He will also investigate whether a novel hedgehog pathway inhibitor developed by a pharmaceutical company can be used to block the progression of hormone-resistant prostate cancer.

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

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