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UPMC/University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

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Joel Greenberger, M.D.

Joel Greenberger, M.D.

Jill Siegfried, Ph.D.

Joel Weissfeld, M.D., Dr.P.H.

James Luketich, M.D.


University Of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Announces New Initiatives Against Lung Cancer

PITTSBURGH, July 11, 2001 — The University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) has received a five-year, $12 million federal grant to study lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. This major award from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), called a Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE), confirms UPCI’s standing as one of the country’s leading cancer research centers. Since the inception of the award in 1992, only six Lung Cancer SPORE grants have been awarded. With this designation, UPCI joins the ranks of such nationally known cancer centers as Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland and M.D. Anderson in Houston, Texas.

As a nationally recognized center for lung cancer research, UPCI will be in a position to employ the newest diagnostic tools and bring the latest treatments to patients at its Lung Cancer Center. Last year, this center saw more than 600 newly diagnosed lung cancer patients.

“We are quite pleased that NCI has recognized UPCI’s excellence in basic and clinical lung cancer research through the awarding of this grant. We expect that the results of the research funded through this SPORE will have an unparalleled impact on the way lung cancer is treated in the future and on our understanding of differences among people in their susceptibility to the development and progression of lung cancer,” stated Ronald B. Herberman, M.D., director of UPCI and associate vice chancellor for research, health sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Herberman went on to say that new research is extremely important because approximately 170,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year, and 160,000 deaths are expected to occur.

According to Joel Greenberger, M.D., professor and chairman of the department of radiation oncology and co-director of the Lung Cancer Center at UPCI, “We believe many of the studies funded through this grant will soon have direct applicability to patient care. Through the collaborative efforts of UPCI researchers in the labs and clinics, the quality of life for lung cancer patients will be enhanced and their prognoses will improve.”

A major area of study will focus on women and lung cancer. In women, lung cancer causes more deaths each year than any other type of cancer, including breast cancer. UPCI studies have already found that women have increased susceptibility to this disease and further research will seek to determine the factors related to this increase.

Current treatment for lung cancer results in a five-year survival rate of only 14-percent. One reason for the high mortality rate is that the best treatments available are often limited because of their damaging side effects. Under this grant, a major study will focus on the reduction of these side effects through the use of gene therapy.

Another factor that contributes to the high mortality rate is the difficulty detecting lung cancer while still in its early stages. A result of this limitation is that many people have an advanced stage of the disease at diagnosis. To address this limitation, a third major area of investigation will focus on the use of a new imaging technique that can potentially detect lung cancer earlier.

A final basic research project aimed at increasing our understanding of the immunology of the disease also will be funded through the SPORE.

In the first major project, Jill Siegfried, Ph.D., principal investigator on the grant, professor of pharmacology at the University of Pittsburgh and co-director of the Lung Cancer Center, will examine the gastrin-releasing peptide receptor – a gene linked to abnormal cell growth in the lung that appears to be more active in women than men. Previous research conducted at UPCI has indicated that the gene may be regulated by estrogen and nicotine, and may be a way to explain why women are more likely to develop lung cancer than men, even when they are nonsmokers or smoke less than men. The goal of this project is to determine how tobacco exposure and hormones contribute to the expression of this gene and to examine the expression of four other genes that may contribute to lung cancer risk in women.

Dr. Siegfried also will examine the role of estrogen in the development of lung cancer. The study will examine whether estrogen acts as a proliferation agent in the lung, activating lung cancer development. In addition to examining estrogen’s role as a lung cancer proliferation agent, Dr. Siegfried will evaluate anti-estrogens that may inhibit the effect of estrogen on lung tumor growth in women and determine which are the most effective at blocking the action of estrogen in the lungs.

“There has been a lack of research studies on the effects of estrogen on women’s risk for lung cancer,” said Dr. Siegfried. “By examining an area of research that has been previously understudied, this grant will allow us to learn more about the basic biological factors that may put women at a greater risk for developing lung cancer than men.”

Dr. Greenberger will examine the use of manganese superoxide dismutase (MnSOD) plasmid liposome gene therapy as an agent to protect the normal tissues in the esophagus and lung from damage during radiation therapy for non-small cell lung cancer. Damage to normal tissues during radiation therapy has been a major limitation to the effective treatment of lung cancer. The goal of this project is to use MnSOD plasmid liposome gene therapy to prevent the lethal effects of irradiation to the esophagus and normal lung tissue – improving the quality of life for lung cancer patients and potentially allowing for the use of higher doses of radiation or chemotherapy to effectively treat lung cancer without the damaging side effects.

Joel Weissfeld, M.D., Dr.P.H., assistant professor, department of epidemiology and leader of the cancer epidemiology, prevention, and control program, will examine the use of multi-detector CT in the detection of lung cancer. This project’s goal is to determine the efficacy of multi-detector CT as a screening tool in detecting extremely small lung tumors that would eventually result in the progression of cancer. If determined to be an effective screening tool, patients with extremely small lung tumors discovered by multi-detector CT could be treated early before the cancer has spread throughout the lung or body.

Although often detected at a later stage, earlier detection of lung cancer is extremely important. “Since symptoms do not appear until the disease is well-advanced, successful treatment is dependent on an early diagnosis,” said James Luketich, M.D., chief of thoracic surgery and co-director of the Lung Cancer Center. “As a surgeon, I can attest to the importance of developing and examining new methods and techniques for the early detection of lung cancer. When lung cancer is detected at an early stage, minimally invasive surgical techniques can be applied for complete tumor removal in many cases.”

In an additional project, Olivera Finn, Ph.D., professor of molecular genetics and biochemistry and leader of the immunology program, will examine the role of the protein Cyclin B1 as an antigen (a substance that causes the immune system to make a specific immune response) and cancer vaccine for non-small lung tumors. Dr. Finn will examine the differences in the expression of Cyclin B1 in normal cells and lung tumor cells to determine what makes Cyclin B1 a tumor antigen.

Despite an overall decline in smoking rates, lung cancer persists as the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Cigarette smoking is by far the single most important risk factor for lung cancer.

As the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in western Pennsylvania, UPCI is a recognized leader in providing innovative cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment; bio-medical research; compassionate patient care and support; and community-based outreach services. UPCI investigators are world-renowned for their work in clinical and basic cancer research.

Smokers who are interested in participating in a screening trial for early lung cancer detection can call the UPCI’s Health Studies Recruitment Line at 1-800-872-3653.

For more information about lung cancer prevention and treatment, call the UPCI’s Cancer Information and Referral Service at 1-800-237-4PCI (1-800-237-4724), or visit UPCI’s website at

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