The science behind the Pedal the Cause cancer research awards

Written by 
sgammon
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Pedal the Cause, the nonprofit organization dedicated to raising funds for cancer research, recently announced the funding awards for collaborative translational research projects for scientists at Sanford-Burnham, UC San Diego (Moores Cancer Center), and the Salk Institute. This means that scientists from these organizations will join together and embark on projects centered on what occurs "from bench to bedside” in the development of new drug treatment options for patients.

This year’s round of funded cancer research includes three projects by Sanford-Burnham investigators. Below is a brief overview of the science these teams will pursue.

Halting pancreatic cancer The largest award of $300,000 went to the team of Cosimo Commisso, Ph.D., Jorge Moscat, Ph.D., Maria Diaz-Meco, Ph.D., (all Sanford-Burnham), Geoffrey Wahl, Ph.D., (Salk Institute), and Andrew Lowy, M.D. (UC San Diego). They will undertake research to understand how non-cancerous cells found in pancreatic tumors control tumor growth and the spread of cancer cells to other organs. Previous studies have shown that the non-cancerous cells in pancreatic tumors lose the function of two proteins called p53 and p62. Normally, p53 and p62 suppress cancer development, so their absence creates an opportunity for cancer cells to grow and flourish. The team will screen libraries of drug-like molecules to identify those that can restore the function of p53 and p62 and potentially inhibit cancer growth and spreading.

A novel tumor biosensor Alex Strongin, Ph.D., (Sanford-Burnham), Shu Chien, Ph.D., and Yingxiao Yang, Ph.D., (both UC San Diego) were awarded funds to collaborate on the development of a biosensor that can identify patients who will respond to drugs that target matrix metalloproteinase proteins (MMPs). MMPs are enzymes that degrade the structural and biochemical support (extracellular matrix) that surrounds cells—and there are multiple classes of MMPs based on the mode of action. MMPs are an important tool used by cancer cells to invade surrounding tissue and metastasize to other areas of the body. The fully synthetic biosensor they are developing would “read” the proteolytic potential of cancer cells and determine MMP activity levels to select specific treatments. The biosensor would arm clinicians with a diagnostic/prognostic device to practice knowledge-based personalized medicine at levels beyond what is currently available.

Personalizing melanoma treatment Linda Bradley, Ph.D., (Sanford-Burnham) and Gregory Daniels M.D., Ph.D., (UC San Diego) are undertaking a project to evaluate whether a patient’s own immune system can be harnessed to combat melanoma. The approach involves the creation of avatar mice—mice that carry a patient’s immune system and tumor cells. By testing drugs in mice specific to a patient—an in vivo model of disease—they hope to predict whether a patient will have a productive response to drugs. The team will use a combination of known, clinically available drugs, as well as drugs against new melanoma targets to see if a patient's immune system can be augmented to fight melanoma. The studies are highly significant because the tools may be applied to combat other types of cancer in humans if they show promise in melanoma.

Many congratulations to the research teams!