2006 Spring Research Awardees

The first cycle of research grants and fellowships of 2006 produced nine awards for research in the categories of liver, colon, breast, cervical, and prostate cancers, as well as studies into behavioral patterns that lead to low cancer screening rates.

Yanming An, Ph.D. (Fellow)
Radoslav Goldman, Ph.D.

Georgetown University Medical Center

These researchers are seeking to define reliable biomarkers of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), a serious and complicated chronic liver disease that may lead to liver cancer, in order to detect and track the illness through therapy. HCC ranks fifth in cancer incidence and causes the death of about half a million people worldwide annually. The incidence of HCC in the United States is increasing, most likely due to the rise of hepatitis C. HCC develops because of complex changes in genes and in the expression of proteins in the blood. Drs. An and Goldman believe these proteins may serve as “markers” that signal HCC and could be used for early detection. In this study, the researchers hope to identify these HCC-related proteins and define new methods for their detection in the blood. This information could lead to a powerful diagnostic test, which could be used not only for early detection of HCC, but also for tracking of the progression of disease and the effectiveness of therapy.

Sachidanand Hebbar, Ph.D. (Fellow)
Deanna Smith, Ph.D.
University of South Carolina

Drs. Hebbar and Smith are testing the effects of common Type 2 diabetes medications on preventing or encouraging the incidence of colon cancer. The cells that line the colon are unusual because they are exposed to ingested substances in our diet. These cells can also be directly influenced by oral medications and this unique feature offers opportunities for chemoprevention. Drs. Hebbar and Smith are investigating one type of drug, called “a PPAR-activating drug,” to determine its cancer preventive abilities. PPARs, or peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors, are a group of hormone receptors belonging to the steroid family. Researchers have discovered that some colon cancer cells have mutant PPARs. PPAR-activating drugs, used to treat patients with type 2-diabetes, have been shown to both protect the hormones and provide some protection from colorectal cancer in laboratory tests. However, when used on mice with human-inherited colon cancer (FAP), the drugs actually worsened the tumors. These researchers hope to discover why this occurs, and who may benefit from these drugs. This is important not only for colon cancer patients, but also for more than 1.5 million patients in the United States prescribed supplemental PPAR drugs in addition to insulin to control diabetes.

Bruce Ling, M.D., MPH
University of Pittsburgh

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among Americans. Screening is an effective way of detecting the disease early and improving the chance for cure. Unfortunately, only about half of eligible Americans are following recommended screening guidelines. Despite a number of initiatives to improve screening rates, there has been little success. One promising area not yet well studied is the way health care providers and patients discuss colorectal cancer screening with each other. In this study, Dr. Ling is testing a method to improve doctor-patient communication by encouraging patients to bring up the topic at clinic visits and by providing an information sheet that patients can review with their doctors. His theory is that by improving communication on colorectal cancer screening to patients, Americans will adopt this cancer prevention behavior and the burden of colorectal cancer can be minimized in this country.

Lisa Madlensky, Ph.D.
University of California, San Diego

Dr. Madlensky is developing informational materials for patients who are diagnosed with colon polyps – an early precursor to colon cancer – as a way for those patients to talk to their family members who may also be at risk. She will also study whether or not polyp patients are advised to make lifestyle changes such as diet or exercise. People who have small growths in the colon, called polyps, are at higher risk of developing colorectal cancer (CRC) than the average person. For some specific types of polyps, there is also an increase in risk for the close relatives of the person with the polyp. But not all polyp patients are aware of this increased risk for their family members or the need for close relatives to be screened. This project will develop materials to be provided by physicians to their polyp patients to help them communicate the details of their polyp diagnosis to their relatives. In turn, these relatives can share the polyp information with their own doctors, and together they can decide on the best CRC screening approach for them. Dr. Madlensky will also examine whether polyp patients are being advised to make the lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of having more polyps in the future.

Ehsan Samei, Ph.D.
Duke University Medical Center

Mammography is currently the most reliable screening technique used for breast cancer detection. However, this method of screening has difficulty visualizing masses and micro-calcifications hidden in dense tissue. Normal tissue, called anatomical noise, can prevent radiologists from seeing important changes in dense breast tissue. Acquiring two views of each breast can help radiologists eliminate this problem, but taking two views requires two separate, uncomfortable compressions of the patient’s breast. Moreover, the image data from the two views cannot be directly compared. This study is investigating the feasibility of a new imaging procedure, called Stereo Imaging (SI), in which two digital radiographic images of the breast are acquired using a single compression. The SI method produces three-dimensional X-ray images with stereo views of the possible breast lesions and has the potential to be easily translated into clinical settings.

Hua Su, Ph.D. (Fellow)
Careen Tang, Ph.D.

Georgetown University, Lombardi Cancer Center

These researchers are investigating the cooperative role two cancer genes have in developing and progressing breast cancer. By studying the early stages of breast cancer at the molecular level, the doctors hope to offer an important prevention and prediction tool for high risk patients. Preventing breast cancer requires a better understanding of the biological abnormalities that lead to its development and progression. Understanding early-stage breast cancer progression at the molecular level will provide vital information for early diagnosis and prevention. We do know that one oncogene (cancer-causing gene), ErbB-2, and one metastasis (cancer-spreading) gene, CXCR4, are involved in the progression of breast cancer and the spread of the disease to distant organs outside the breast. But neither of these factors alone is enough to initiate the development of breast cancer. In this proposal, Drs. Su and Tang will investigate how these two genes work together in breast cancer. These studies will provide crucial information that may be used to predict women at high risk for developing the disease.

Erin M. Siegel, Ph.D.
H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute

Dr. Siegel is examining a biomarker that indicates damaged genetic material as a way to predict which women infected with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) are most likely to develop cervical cancer, as not all HPV infections progress past the initial exposure. Infection with certain types of HPV, or high-risk HPV types, may lead to cancer of the cervix. But because many high-risk HPV infections are cleared and do not lead to disease, testing for HPV infection may not be the best way to find women at risk for cervical cancer. Dr. Siegel hopes a marker found in blood that is an antibody to damaged genetic material will prove an effective early detection and prevention tool. Dr. Siegel hopes to determine whether this new marker is different among women with an HPV infection compared to women without an infection. Results may help improve cervical cancer prevention efforts worldwide.

Gang Zeng, Ph.D.
University of California, Los Angeles

Dr. Zeng is investigating new biomarkers that could detect the difference between prostate cancer and other prostate abnormalities that are non-malignant. The research will hopefully yield a molecular tool that would complement the PSA test given to detect prostate cancer early, minimizing false positives and negatives. In prostate cancers, the use of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening has led to the earlier detection of malignancy. However, the test has limitations because increased PSA levels also could indicate nonmalignant conditions, such as prostatic hyperplasia or prostatitis. More specific prostate cancer markers are needed. Dr. Zeng is examining autologous antibodies (Ab) as a possible marker for the disease. Such antibodies have been found in the blood of prostate cancer patients and are easy to detect through a non-invasive and cost-effective blood test. Dr. Zeng’s long-term goal is to establish an approach that would complement the PSA test as a tool for early detection of prostate cancer.

Alicia Matthews, Ph.D.
University of Illinois, Chicago

In this study, Dr. Matthews will examine the effects of a computer-based intervention system designed to increase cancer screening awareness in lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) women and men. The LGB community currently has a proportionally higher incidence rate of late diagnoses due to low cancer screening rates. Lesbian, gay and bisexual women and men are at risk for a late diagnosis of cancer because of low cancer screening rates. Still, little is known about the barriers to cancer screening in these individuals. Even less is known about how to increase their cancer-screening behavior. This study will first adapt an existing computer-based Tailored Intervention Messaging System (TIMS) cancer screening intervention for use with these individuals and then pilot test it in a sample group to determine whether it is feasible, accepted and effective in prompting screening. Results of this study will provide data that could lead to a large, randomized controlled behavioral trial in this population.