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Bank On It: New Research Funding Opportunities Abound

Conquest - Fall 2009

By Scott Merville

New sources of state, federal and philanthropic funding for cancer research provide fresh opportunities for M. D. Anderson faculty.

“Competing for grants from these new initiatives is a welcome challenge after years of stagnant or reduced funding for cancer research,” says Provost and Executive Vice President Raymond DuBois, M.D., Ph.D. “Our faculty have really stepped up with innovative research proposals aligned with these new programs.”

The federal programs are under way, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas is gearing up, and M. D. Anderson scientists have earned funding from the new philanthropy initiative, Stand Up to Cancer.

Stand Up to Cancer

The best and the brightest, joining forces against a common foe — that’s the approach taken by the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C) effort, which counts three M. D. Anderson faculty members among its Dream Team leadership.

With a goal of making new cancer treatments available to patients more quickly, SU2C awarded grants totaling $73.6 million to five Dream Teams comprising 200-plus researchers from 20 leading institutions.

Gordon Mills, M.D., Ph.D., chair of
M. D. Anderson’s Department of Systems Biology and director of the Kleberg Center for Molecular Markers, is a co-leader on one of those projects. Supported by a three-year, $15 million grant, the team hopes to accelerate development of drugs to attack a mutated molecular pathway that fuels endometrial, breast and ovarian cancers.

“The pathway involved here, PI3K, is the most common abnormally activated pathway in all of cancer,” Mills says. “What we learn in women’s cancers will apply to many other types.”

Another Stand Up to Cancer-funded Dream Team designed to advance epigenetic cancer therapy will draw on the expertise of Jean-Pierre Issa, M.D., professor in the Department of Leukemia.

Epigenetics involves biochemical regulation of genes rather than actual damage to or mutation of DNA. Issa and colleagues were instrumental in the development of decitabine, one of the first epigenetic drugs, which turns on genes that have been chemically shut down.

“We plan to find markers that can guide individualized epigenetic therapy by identifying patients most likely to respond,” Issa says. “We’ll start in leukemia, working primarily at M. D. Anderson.”

Through a third Dream Team grant, Roy Herbst, M.D., Ph.D., professor in the Department of Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology, leads research through the department’s innovative BATTLE clinical trial. The team focuses on circulating tumor cells in the bloodstream to detect specific mutations in a variety of cancers and predict patients’ responses to treatment.

“We hope circulating tumor cells will allow us to do the same thing without having to do a biopsy,” Herbst says. “We could conduct continuous sampling with this technology.”

Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas

Approved by Texas voters in 2007, CPRIT has received its first allocation from the Texas Legislature, $450 million for two years, and continues to build an outstanding leadership team, DuBois notes.

Nobel Laureate Phillip Sharp, Ph.D., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the chair of CPRIT’s Scientific Review Council, which will set standards for reviewing and rewarding grant applications.

Nobel Laureate Al Gilman, M.D., Ph.D., of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, is CPRIT’s scientific director, and former U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official William “Bill” Gimson is executive director.

Grant application procedures are expected to be in place later this year so reviews can begin. Because CPRIT will require matching funds for each grant,
M. D. Anderson will conduct an internal review to select projects for submission. Interested faculty members start by submitting letters of intent.

“We received a remarkable 716 letters of intent for research projects from our faculty,” DuBois says.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

Sometimes generically referred to as stimulus funding, the ARRA opens a new grant initiative and expands the number of grants awarded under existing National Institutes of Health programs.

Scientists who work in the George
and Cynthia Mitchell Basic
Sciences Research Building and
other research facilities on campus
are exploring new avenues to fund
their work.

The recovery act set aside $200 million for a new program of Challenge Grants designed to jump-start high-impact research that might quickly advance with a brief influx of funds.

M. D. Anderson faculty submitted 206 Challenge Grant applications. It’s anticipated that about 200 of these two-year grants will be awarded in September out of the 20,000 applications received nationally.

ARRA also provides sufficient NIH appropriations to routinely fund more high-scoring grant proposals. Applications to the NIH are rigorously reviewed and scored in a peer-review system. Tight funding in recent years meant that only the top 12% were approved. A combination of regular budget increases and stimulus funds will allow approval for the top 25% of applications.

“This is great news, because funding only the very highest-scoring projects leaves some terrific ideas on the table,” DuBois says.

By the end of July, M. D. Anderson already had received 16 grants totaling $4.4 million under this program.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center