Research Programs

The Institute is investing in research to discover how biologic, genetic, environmental, behavioral and social factors impact cancer development, investigate interventions to reduce cancer risk, and translate therapies to help patients in our clinics and people in the community. In addition to these broad areas of cancer prevention and risk assessment, the Institute has identified research areas for targeted investments.

Funding to advance research in cancer prevention and risk assessment is provided through several different support mechanisms, including:

Premalignant Genome Atlas Program 

Co-directors: Xifeng Wu, M.D., Ph.D., Professor, Epidemiology
                        Ernest Hawk, M.D., M.P.H., Vice President, Division of OVP
                        Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences
                        Lopa Mishra, M.D., Professor,  Gastroenterology, Hepatology, 
                        & Nutrition

Approximately 80% of all human cancers arise in the cells that line the surfaces and cavities of the body's organs (epithelial cancers). The progression from healthy cells to cancer is a multi-step process, from normal cells, to premalignant lesion, and to malignant tumor, often involving accumulation of genetic and chemical alterations in tissues over many years. This process makes the early detection and prevention of cancer possible. However, progression does not occur at the same rate, if at all, in each individual. The mission of the Premalignant Genome Atlas Program (PGA) is to assess the spectrum of factors contributing to the progression from healthy individuals to those with precancerous lesions to cancer patients and determine the molecular changes along this continuum. This information can be used to:

  • build models to predict risk of cancer progression,
  • identify targets for prevention therapies, and
  • find markers of prevention response.

Because cancer is often detected and treated at an advanced stage using chemo- and/or radiotherapy with varying results and side effects that impact cancer survivors' quality of life, this strategic initiative is directly relevant to cancer prevention research and will have profound impact on public health.

Project BRaNCH
Bridging Relatives and Navigators for Colorectal Health

Director: Susan Peterson, Ph.D., M.P.H., Professor, Behavioral Science

Improved understanding of the genetic basis of major hereditary CRC syndromes has enabled the use of clinical genetic testing for guiding disease diagnosis, risk assessment, cancer surveillance and prevention interventions.  The two most common hereditary CRC syndromes are familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and hereditary non-polyposis CRC syndrome (HNPCC or Lynch syndrome).  The first individual, or proband, identified in a family that has a hereditary CRC syndrome requires coordinated cancer surveillance for all organs at risk and cancer prevention strategies that complement their cancer treatment.  The dedicated Familial High Risk Gastrointestinal Cancer Clinic (FHRGICC) was established in May 2010 to help achieve these goals.  However, a significant gap in our current program exists in our ability to reach greater numbers of at-risk family members due to a number of well-established barriers that hamper the extension of cancer genetic information to these groups.  Our limited ability to reach and recruit family members represents a significant missed opportunity for cancer prevention.

This work will advance translational research through the implementation of a new care delivery model in cancer genetics and will also create a scalable platform for this delivery model that can be expanded across high risk families at MD Anderson and potentially adopted nationwide.  It provides an opportunity for synergistic, multidisciplinary research encompassing clinical genetics, behavioral science and cancer prevention and establishes a model with the potential for long-term sustainability, given a robust electronic support system that may eventually allow for a “virtual patient navigator”.

Tobacco Research

Director: David Wetter, Ph.D., Professor, Health Disparities Research

Tobacco research continues to be a strength of MD Anderson's and is an area for continued investment. We still do not know all of the factors that explain why some people who use tobacco do not get cancer and others do; nor do we fully understand why some people can easily stop using tobacco products and others have great difficulty in doing so. Epidemiologists are looking at genetic and environmental influences, behavioral scientists are studying the neurobiological basis for tobacco addiction and research combinations of psychosocial and pharmacological interventions to find more effective ways to help those who want to quit do so. Scientists in the department of Health Disparities Research are taking treatments that work in the clinic to community-based settings, such as the Harris County Hospital District and Kelsey Seybold to study how best to tailor these interventions to the realities of real world clinical settings and thus help to improve the health of the population in the Houston area and beyond.

Seed Funding Research Program

The Institute provides seed funding grants to help individual investigators develop the preliminary data necessary to develop their research ideas to compete successfully for external peer-reviewed funding. The Institute awards seed grants based on scientific merit, assessed through an NIH-like peer review process, which included scientists from Texas Medical Center institutions on the peer-review panel.

Scientists receiving seed grant program awards are working on projects aimed at understanding the development of colon, esophageal, and prostate cancer at its earliest stages, conducting pre-clinical studies to test a new drug target for halting the progression of cancer, enhancing lung cancer risk models to include new types of genetic information implicated in lung cancer development and describe the interaction of genetic and environmental factors in risk for lung cancer, and developing tools to move these statistical models of risk out of the laboratory and into the clinic.