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UT SHIS Researcher Receives $1.5 Million Gift from The Cullen Trust for Health Care

Vittorio Cristini, PhD

Vittorio Cristini, PhD

To help reduce the rate of cancer recurrence and progression, The Cullen Trust for Health Care made a gift to support the research of Vittorio Cristini, PhD, associate professor at The University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences (SHIS).

The $1.5 million contribution will aid in Cristini's "Virtual Cancer" project that he is working on in partnership with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. It aimed at creating new breakthroughs in breast cancer diagnostics and treatments through the computational modeling of biological systems.

"This gift is helping us to continue advancing our research in predictive and mathematical oncology," said Cristini. "It couldn't have come at a better time; it is clear the foundation recognizes the sense of urgency in getting this work started quickly."

Oftentimes private philanthropy provides the seed for innovative work such as Cristini's, when sufficient government funding is not yet available. The Cullen Trust for Health Care recognized the need for a timely gift, which has already helped Cristini develop the data necessary to pursue additional funding.

Through this project, the search for a cure to help the thousands of women diagnosed each year will be expedited by helping researchers understand how individual molecules and cells interact in each patient.

"It will advance personalized medicine and help save lives by predicting the size, margins and growth pattern of cancer tumors at the cellular level," said Cristini.

In addition, this predictive technology should reduce the need for additional surgeries because surgeons will be given significantly more precise information than currently available. Also, chemotherapy and radiation treatment plans, along with their side effects, will be dramatically improved through optimization of delivery protocols.

This project involves creating computer simulations based on actual patient data provided by MD Anderson, with help in particular from Mary Edgerton, MD, PhD, key collaborator on the project. From a retrospective study of tissue and tumor imaging data of hundreds of patients who received surgery and radiation, computational models have been developed and "trained" to determine the optimal set of biomarkers.

These markers have been shown to predict tumor size and response to treatment based on a number of calculable factors such as the rate of cell division and how fast the cells move in the breast ducts. Cristini and his team will continue to test the predictive effectiveness on smaller biopsy samples taken before surgery.

"It's like building a bridge," Cristini said, "You may know all the formulas it takes to build it, but it's such a critical task that you create a model to increase your chances for success and prevent future problems. The same goes for our models and cancer."

Preliminary results show that Cristini and his colleagues have been able to dramatically reduce this rate of error in precisely predicting tumor size.

"We are getting very exciting numbers," Cristini said. "Through refinement and testing of the computer simulations we will eventually be able to create a software program available on any physician's laptop via Web access, anywhere in the world."

The Cullen Trust for Health Care gift has been crucial to the success with the initial 100 patients and to Cristini's endeavor into this relatively new field of cancer research. The foundation has important health care initiatives throughout the Houston community to advance a range of important projects and to improve the overall health of Houstonians. Since 1992, The Cullen Trust for Health Care has given the health science center $8.66 million in philanthropic gifts, including the "virtual cancer" project.

"Dr. Cristini's research is highly collaborative and is something that could only be done at a handful of institutions in the world," said Beth Robertson, trustee of The Cullen Trust for Health Care. "Innovative, interdisciplinary research such as this, with the potential to have a significant impact on such a horrible disease, is an example of why it's important for philanthropy to support early-stage research so that it has the chance to progress."

The "Virtual Cancer" project also has a potential significant impact in other cancers beyond breast cancer. In fact, this research has an estimated 80 percent relevancy to prostate cancer. In addition, the mathematical models developed through predictive modeling can be directly adapted to regenerative medicine to help determine tissue growth.

By Rachel Bailey, Institutional Advancement