Seeds of hope

Pilot grants create bridge to take researchers to the next level

Like a seed that becomes a tree, pilot grants can help a scientist through the mundane but pricey steps needed to prove an idea has real potential—thus securing the bigger grants to finance the years of work it takes to create the next effective drug.

When Roger and Dot Hemminghaus heard about the pilot research grant program at the Cancer Therapy & Research Center, they chose to support the work of Manjeet Rao, Ph.D., assistant professor of cellular and structural biology.

Their instincts were sound. Their $25,000 pilot gift allowed Dr. Rao to build toward a $900,000 grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).pilot_grant_graphic

Dr. Rao’s work is with microRNA, small gene-like molecules that can affect cells through subtle regulation of a number of factors and play a critical role in cancer drug resistance. Dr. Rao wants to put them to work against triple-negative breast cancers and find less toxic treatments that aren’t so vulnerable to drug resistance.

“It was a project that we believed would lead to very specific results—and that we could understand, for one thing,” Roger Hemminghaus said with a chuckle. “[Dr. Rao] was working with a breast cancer that wouldn’t respond to the existing treatment, and he was taking a new approach to understanding the chemistry and physiology of that cancer.

“And it appears, according to the size of the grant he just got, we picked a winner,” he said.

The Hemminghaus grant is an example of the bridge that pilot grants can form to help researchers take their work to the next level, said CTRC Director Ian M. Thompson Jr., M.D.

“It’s not necessary to fund a building or endow a chair to make a real difference,” he said. “People can make a powerful, tangible difference at the pilot grant level if they direct it to something that has great potential, which is something we vet when we compile the list of potential research projects. And it’s more meaningful to everyone if they know exactly what they’re funding.”

Barbara and George Williams recently chose two projects to fund: Gail Tomlinson, M.D., Ph.D., interim director of the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Instit
ute, is researching liver blastomas in children. And Karen Block, Ph.D., assistant professor of nephrology, and Denis Feliers, Ph.D., assistant professor of cell biology, are working on kidney cancer.

A blastoma is a type of tumor that comes from immature or embryonic tissue. Dr. Tomlinson is searching for akey similarity between liver blastomas and hepatocellular cancer in adults, which is the most common type of liver cancer. Finding the similarities is critical to designing a clinical trial that could help both, she said. While hepatocellular cancer is a looming threat for an increasing number of adults, pediatric blastomas are much rarer. Funding national clinical trials to develop drugs to treat them alone is difficult, Dr. Tomlinson said.

She has identified a possible key element that appears in both cancers, and the next step involves intensive analysis to develop a drug to target it.

The gift to Dr. Block and Dr. Feliers will be used to develop a therapy for kidney cancer, among the most malignant cancers in the U.S. with a high incidence in South Texas. The researchers are examining what drives the process at the cellular level. When the wrong protein is present in kidneys, it gives rise to kidney cancer, and oxidative stress is what allows the wrong protein to be present.

“Current therapies aren’t touching this protein,” Dr. Block said. “If we can silence the enzymes that produce oxidative stress, it reduces renal tumor growth by 70 to 80 percent.”

The next step is crafting a therapy that targets the key players producing oxidative stress that can be used in combination with other therapies for the treatment of renal cancer.

The Williamses, who have lost family members to cancer, said the ongoing research is a long way from the cancer treatments of the past. Contributing to moving new therapies forward is an opportunity they’re happy to have. They’ve already pledged to fund two additional pilot grants. They will select one later this year and one next year.

“Cancer is such a scourge in our society,” Barbara Williams said. “We felt that if we could attack it on the front lines—that, to us, was just really important.”


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