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UPCI Wins $10.9 Million Grant Renewal for Head and Neck Cancer Research

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University of Pittsburgh researchers have received renewal of their head and neck cancer research through the National Cancer Institute’s competitive Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) program. The five-year, $10.9 million grant includes a new project to study differentiated thyroid cancer, a malignancy whose incidence is rising at the fastest rate of all cancers in the United States and worldwide.

The award is one of four grants awarded to Pitt through the prestigious SPORE program which requires the assembly of a team of eminent scientists and clinicians to collaborate to translate critical findings from the laboratory to the clinic and the community. The other University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) SPORE grants are in melanoma, lung and ovarian cancers.

The head and neck SPORE consists of four study projects, headed by co-principal investigator Robert L. Ferris, M.D., Ph.D., associate director for translational research and co-leader of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute’s Cancer Immunology Program, and a collaborator at the University of California at San Francisco. Three of the four projects focus on head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), a frequently lethal cancer with few Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs available for treatment.

“Building on our past research, we are excited to continue our work into novel treatments to attack cancer-promoting proteins that have been resistant to drug intervention and an exciting immunotherapy strategy to counteract inhibitory immune cells in HNSCC,” said Dr. Ferris, who also is vice chair and chief of the Division of Head and Neck Surgery for the Departments of Otolaryngology, Immunology, and Radiation Oncology. “We’ve also added a new project looking at chemoprevention to reverse oral cancer development, which is a promising area of study.”

The thyroid cancer project will focus on using next-generation sequencing to reduce unnecessary surgeries for those with less aggressive tumors, while identifying individuals with more aggressive disease who need additional therapy.

“The work we’re doing with next-generation sequencing is the true realization of personalized medicine, and it’s exciting to see the work in the lab translate to clinical use,” said Nancy E. Davidson, M.D., director of UPCI and UPMC CancerCenter, and president-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research.