UH Receives $2.4 Million For New, Multidisciplinary Cancer Research

By Rolando Garcia
Natural Sciences and Mathematics

The University of Houston received a $2.4 million grant to fund the most promising young cancer researchers who are working at the cutting-edge of a new multidisciplinary approach to fighting cancer.

The award, announced June 18, was part of the latest round of grant disbursements from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), which oversees the state’s new billion-dollar war on cancer. It is UH’s second CPRIT grant, and the first in the science and engineering fields.

The money will fund post-doctoral scientists at UH whose research combines cancer biology with computational disciplines like computer science, or theoretical physics or chemistry. The grant builds on UH’s existing collaborations with the Texas Medical Center within the Keck Center for Interdisciplinary Bioscience, which will help administer the program.

New science Ph.D. graduates typically complete a two year or more postdoctoral program before starting research careers in academia, government or industry.  The CPRIT post-doctoral researchers in this new program will have two faculty mentors – one in a computational field and one in cancer biology – chosen from UH, Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, UT Health Science Center,  UT Medical Branch Galveston or the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

“There’s a realization that all the problems of cancer won’t be solved by biology,” said B. Montgomery Pettitt, the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Professor and director of UH’s CPRIT training program. “We need to bring the expertise in a wide variety of fields to bear on these problems, because the most revolutionary stuff comes from thinking at the interface of disciplines”

One dozen post-doctoral trainees will be chosen, beginning in September. The program will also provide summer research opportunities for about 20 undergraduates. The cross-disciplinary nature of the program will, for example, allow a computer science post doctoral researcher to work in a cancer biochemistry lab. Conversely, a biochemist can work in a programming and applied mathematics lab to understand and enhance computational tools against cancer.

By gaining proficiency in a second technical area, these researchers will be equipped to tackle some of the most pressing problems in cancer research, Pettitt said.

For example, Pettitt said, a scientist studying genes to understand biochemical pathways in cells may find existing technology inadequate to piece together the giant puzzle of data produced by genetic sequencers and must work with computer scientists to produce new computational tools.

These sorts of collaborations are already thriving among researchers at UH the Medical Center. In one project highlighted as a model of future collaborations, Ioannis Kakadiaris, the Eckhard Pfeiffer Professor of Computer Science at UH, is working with a team at M.D. Anderson and the University of Texas Health Science Center to improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy through better imaging methods.

The so-called “leakiness” of a tumor’s microvasculature network can determine how susceptible a tumor is to cancer drugs. However, existing computer imaging cannot precisely characterize a tumor’s vascular leakiness. So Kakadiaris and his team are developing diagnostic tools that will not only measure a tumor’s vulnerability to drugs but predict the outcome of treatment options. This will provide patients more personalized treatment and help avoid futile or ineffective treatments.

The grant to UH is part of the $3 billion in cancer research that Texas voters approved in 2007 to be distributed over 10 years. The first batch of funded projects was announced in 2009. The CPRIT award underscores UH’s growing role in biomedical research, Pettitt said, and there will likely be more such grants in the future as the university’s science and engineering expertise compliments the Medical Center’s clinical expertise.

Additionally, the award puts UH with the leading research institutions in Texas receiving CPRIT funding and also boosts UH by adding more post-doctoral researchers, an important indicator for tier one status.