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Never Giving Up: UPMC, Pitt Researchers Receive Grants Totaling $800,000 from V Foundation

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10/21/2014

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), partner with UPMC CancerCenter, have been awarded a grant from the V Foundation for Cancer Research to study gene mutations in patients whose head and neck cancer was caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) in hopes of finding a more effective, less toxic therapy for this often painful, disfiguring disease.

The three-year, $600,000 grant was awarded to principal investigator Julie Bauman, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of medicine and director of the Head and Neck Cancer Section in the Division of Hematology-Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and co-director of the UPMC Head and Neck Cancer Center of Excellence. The V Foundation, formed by ESPN and former college basketball coach Jim Valvano who is known for challenging people to never give up, also recognized Pitt’s Kara Bernstein, Ph.D., with a V Scholar award, worth $200,000 over two years.

“Coach Valvano established the V Foundation in 1993, the same year he lost his own battle with cancer. His dream was to find a cure for cancer, and we share in that dream here at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute,” said Nancy E. Davidson, M.D., director UPCI and UPMC CancerCenter. “These are highly competitive grants, and we are so pleased that Pitt investigators were recognized.”

Dr. Bauman said the grant will help researchers build on existing scientific knowledge and pioneer new treatments for head and neck cancer, which affects more than 50,000 people in the U.S. and 600,000 people worldwide each year. The primary cause of head and neck cancer in North America and Europe is becoming oral infection with HPV. Although HPV-related cancer responds well to intensive treatment, combinations of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy can result in permanent changes to uniquely human functions: facial expression, speech and swallowing.

“We’ve already learned that half of HPV-related head and neck cancers demonstrate abnormalities in a gene known as PIK3CA,” Dr. Bauman said. “We’re now learning how alterations in this gene cooperate with the virus to transform benign HPV infections into cancer. In addition, we are conducting a clinical trial to see whether a new drug that targets PIK3CA improves response in patients with HPV-related cancer. Ultimately, we aim to identify more effective and less toxic treatments, and even to prevent the transformation of HPV infection into cancer.”

Dr. Bauman is collaborating on the study with Jennifer Grandis, M.D., F.A.C.S., Pitt’s vice chair for research, professor of otolaryngology and pharmacology, and program leader for UPCI’s Head & Neck Cancer Program; Michelle Ozbun, Ph.D., the Maralyn S. Budke Endowed Professor of Viral Oncology at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center; Uma Duvvuri, M.D., Ph.D., Pitt assistant professor of otolaryngology; Andrew Cowan, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of surgery, Division of Otolaryngology, University of New Mexico Cancer Center; and Simion Chiosea, M.D., of the UPMC Anatomic Pathology Department.

The V Foundation has awarded more than $100 million for cancer research to more than 100 facilities nationwide since its inception. The translational research grants are designed to accelerate laboratory findings with the goal of benefiting patients more quickly. The V Scholar grants are designed to help early career cancer investigators develop into promising future research talents.

As a V Scholar, Dr. Bernstein will use her award to investigate why people who have mutations in proteins known as RAD51 paralogues are more susceptible to getting cancer – particularly breast and ovarian – and to identify methods for treating their specific cancers.

“Our goal is to uncover individualized cancer treatment for these particular tumors so these patients will have the best outcomes possible,” Dr. Bernstein said.