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UTHealth awarded millions for cancer research and prevention

December 17, 2012

Rob Cahill


HOUSTON - (Dec. 17, 2012) -The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) has been awarded approximately $6 million by the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). Cancer is a leading cause of death in the Lone Star State and is expected to claim the lives of almost 40,000 Texans this year.

UTHealth received five grants including one that was used to recruit a leading researcher from Vanderbilt University who is using information extracted from electronic health records (EHR) to explore new cancer treatments.

Drug repurposing using EHR data

This approach is called data mining and the investigator, Hua Xu, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Center for Computational Biomedicine at UTHealth, is employing it to see if drugs approved for non-cancerous conditions may work for cancer as well. For example, cancer patients taking metformin, a drug for Type 2 diabetes, were found to have a better cancer survival than those not taking the drug.

Xu, the recipient of a $2.8 million CPRIT Rising Star recruitment award, has moved his laboratory to the UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics, where Xu and his collaborators will continue their work to develop informatics methods such as natural language processing to extract information from clinical narratives, thus facilitating clinical and translational research.

Researchers at the Center of Clinical and Translational Sciences (CCTS) at UTHealth are also involved in data mining efforts and plan to collaborate with Xu.

The other awardees from UTHealth received research grants.

Vaccinate to prevent cervical cancer

Maria E. Fernandez, Ph.D., associate professor and associate director of the Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research at The University of Texas School of Public Health, a part of UTHealth, received an award of $1.5 million for her research into cervical cancer.

In Texas, approximately 5,397 deaths are attributable to persistent infection with high risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV).  HPV is the main risk factor for cervical cancer among women. Compared to non-Hispanic whites, Hispanic women have higher cervical cancer incidence rates as well as higher mortality rates. HPV vaccination has proven to be a safe and effective cervical cancer prevention strategy. Although a national survey conducted in 2010 reported an increase in the initiation of the three-dose vaccine series, the completion rates among Hispanic girls 13 to 17 continue to be lower than non-Hispanic girls, 29.5 percent and 32.4 percent respectively.

The newly-funded study will extend the impact and reach of an ongoing CPRIT-funded research study which seeks to increase HPV vaccination among adolescent Hispanic girls through educating parents about the importance of vaccination. Given that the authority for vaccine decisions among girls ages 11-17 falls largely on parents, they are the target population for this intervention.

Disrupt cancer signals

John Hancock, M.B, B.Chir, Ph.D., executive director of the UTHealth Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases, was awarded a $1 million grant for his research into a signaling protein tied to cancer growth – K-Ras.

K-Ras regulates cell growth signaling and problems can occur when it is always active. Fifteen to 20 percent of all human cancers are associated with the “always-on” status of K-Ras. Hancock’s team is working on various techniques to identify ways to disrupt the K-Ras signaling cascade or pathway.

Hancock is the vice-dean for basic research, chairman of the Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology and the John S. Dunn Distinguished University Chair in Physiology and Medicine at the UTHealth Medical School. He is also on the faculty of The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston.

Disparities in cancer care

Xianglin Du, Ph.D., professor at the UT School of Public Health, received a $435,000 award to research how insurance and other socioeconomic factors contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in cancer care.

In Texas, one in four persons has no health insurance and about four in ten Hispanics have no insurance. Du plans to examine and quantify how racial/ethnic disparities in screening, treatment and survival are explained by differences in socioeconomic status, types of health insurance, rural and urban residence, geographic border with Mexico, health care system and health plan, hospital and physician provider characteristics, and physician supply by county of practice.

He said that this is the first large population-based study that will comprehensively assess and quantify the impact of health insurance and other socioeconomic factors on the life course patterns of cancer care and outcomes in both younger and older patients with cancer in Texas. The findings will have a number of significant public health implications and benefits for future at-risk population for cancer.

Targeting altered lipid metabolism in cancer

Guangwei Du, Ph.D., an assistant professor of integrative biology and pharmacology at the UTHealth Medical School, was awarded $200,000 to study the dependence of cancers on their altered metabolic requirements and to design new therapeutic strategies.

Fast proliferating cancer cells need increased lipid synthesis for biogenesis of cell membranes, and fatty acid oxidation for energy production. The unique lipid metabolic demands of cancer cells could be a promising therapeutic strategy, Du said.