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UPCI Researchers Present Early Findings of Cancer Studies at AACR Annual Meeting

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - A serendipitous cancer cure discovery, standardizing foods for cancer clinical trials, the role of viruses and vaccines in cancer growth and treatment, and many other studies conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), partner with the UPMC CancerCenter, will be highlighted during the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2013, April 6 to 10, in Washington, D.C.


Virus Pathway Targeted to Destroy Aggressive Skin Cancer

Yuan Chang, M.D., professor of pathology in Pitt’s School of Medicine, will present her findings on Merkel cell polyomavirus and the potential to target it with therapies to destroy Merkel cell carcinoma, an uncommon but aggressive skin cancer.

“Viruses are an important model for cancer research,” said Dr. Chang. “We’ve found that it may be possible to kill cancerous tumors by targeting the pathways these viruses use. That’s significant when you consider that 20 percent of all cancers are related to infectious diseases.”

Merkel cell polyomavirus was discovered at Pitt in 2008 in the Chang-Moore laboratory. Targeting a pathway the virus uses is a successful way to kill the cancer cells in the laboratory. Dr. Chang and her colleagues at Pitt have applied to translate their basic research into human clinical trials.

Research Investigates Mechanism That Allows Breast Cancer Cells to Go Undetected

Donald P. Taylor, M.S., M.B.A., a Pitt graduate student researcher in the laboratory of Pitt School of Medicine professor Alan Wells, M.D., D.M.Sc., will present his research aimed at uncovering the mechanisms that some breast cancer cells use to survive several years without emerging as detectable nodules.

Nearly half of breast cancer metastases are not detectable in patients until five or more years after the cancer appears to be destroyed, meaning that the cancer seems to be surviving in the patient but lying dormant. Understanding the function of a protein called E-cadherin that seems to be a hallmark of tumor dormancy should provide insight into the cancer cells’ survival.

“Identifying these mechanisms could lead to new diagnostic methods and therapeutic treatments that could potentially help millions of breast cancer patients worldwide,” said Mr. Taylor.

Trials and Tribulations of Using Food in Cancer Research

Thomas Kensler, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and chemical biology in Pitt’s School of Medicine, is the chairperson for a session titled “Clinical Trials with Functional Foods.” Dr. Kensler will join three other professors from schools nationwide to share challenges and successes in optimizing the use of food in clinical trials.

“Our presentations will give people with an interest in clinical trials using foods insight into the many issues that researchers must take into account to get meaningful scientific results,” said Dr. Kensler. “Where the food is grown, how it is harvested, stored, transported and processed are among the important factors researchers must consider to assure consistency and quality within and between studies.”

Dr. Kensler will reflect upon his decade of experience with clinical trials examining the bioactive molecules in broccoli and how they may help people in China detoxify air pollutants, among other findings.

Fortuitous Finding Reveals Potential Cure for Subset of Cancers

A national team of researchers led by UPCI will present their serendipitous discovery of a head and neck cancer patient whose tumor disappeared after two weeks of being treated with the common lung cancer drug erlotinib as part of a randomized clinical trial.

“The patient had an advanced cancer at diagnosis, but when the surgeon went in to remove it, he called to report that no tumor was found,” said Jennifer Rubin Grandis, M.D., F.A.C.S., leader of the Head and Neck Cancer Program at UPCI. “That was very unusual. We think we’ve identified a genetic mutation that appears to be responsible for exquisite sensitivity to the drug.”

Dr. Grandis, lead author Vivian Lui, Ph.D., Pitt School of Medicine associate professor, and their team have been doing follow-up experiments in the laboratory that support the hypothesis. In addition to head and neck cancers, the mutation is found in some cervical cancers.

Combination Vaccine Therapy Appears Effective in Advanced Melanoma

Julien Fourcade, Ph.D., Pharm.D., a research instructor in the laboratory of Hassane Zarour, M.D., associate professor in Pitt’s School of Medicine, will present the findings from their clinical trial testing different immunization strategies for melanoma.

In this phase I trial, patients with metastatic melanoma were immunized with a novel vaccine that included an adjuvant to increase the immunogenicity of the vaccine in combination with small portions of a tumor protein that induce either cytotoxic CD8+ T cells alone or CD8+ T cells and CD4+ helper T cells to stimulate the body to destroy tumor cells.

“Although this phase I trial was not designed to evaluate the clinical efficacy of the vaccines, we did observe that only patients with advanced melanoma who received the vaccine that stimulated both CD8+ and CD4+ T cells had evidence of prolonged stable disease,” said Dr. Fourcade. “More clinical trials will be needed, but we anticipate that such vaccines may prove useful for patients with advanced melanoma.”

Dr. Fourcade was selected by AACR for an AACR-Bristol-Myers Squibb Oncology Scholar-in-Training Award to fund his participation in the annual meeting. The award is presented to fewer than 10 percent of applicants.