Newswise — DALLAS – April 11, 2014 – Grants totaling $100,000 from Friends of the Comprehensive Cancer Center will bolster innovative research by two UT Southwestern Medical Center scientists who are at an early stage in their careers, but already are doing promising work on potential targets for lung and breast cancer.

Dr. Daniel Siegwart, Assistant Professor of biochemistry, and Dr. Angelique Whitehurst, Assistant Professor of pharmacology, are faculty members of UT Southwestern’s Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center. Each will receive $50,000 to continue their research into lung and breast cancer, respectively.

In just its second year, the Friends of the Comprehensive Cancer Center has 150 members and has raised more than $300,000 for cancer research. Friends co-chair Patty Leyendecker said the group is passionate about the grants because they support promising researchers who might not find necessary funding so early in their careers.

 “Part of our mission is to highlight and fund promising programs that have the potential to deeply impact cancer research and care,” she said. “We feel like we’re providing a useful source of funding by giving these grants.” The grants were awarded at a reception for the Friends of the Comprehensive Cancer Center on April 9. Dr. James Willson, Associate Dean of Oncology Programs, and Professor and Director of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, thanked the group for their support of cancer research.

“What you are doing is so important,” he told the gathering. “You’re planting the seeds for those who are going to be our leaders of tomorrow.”

Dr. Siegwart’s research is focused on microRNA 34a, which has been shown to act as a tumor suppressor. Lung cancer cells in patients are often found to lack microRNA 34a. He wants to develop a microRNA mimic drug that will restore microRNA 34a activity in the diseased lung and thus fight cancer.

The work is challenging because Dr. Siegwart needs to get a relatively large, double-stranded RNA into cancer cells to restore the body’s ability to fight cancer. Getting into the cells is the trick – the negatively charged drug by itself cannot cross cell membranes and needs help. Much of Dr. Siegwart's work will focus on gaining admittance.

“Predicting how to overcome all of those barriers is quite challenging,” Dr. Siegwart said. “We will synthesize and screen thousands of delivery materials to find the perfect one that will enable effective drug delivery to the tumor. This study will also yield fundamental insights into how delivery happens and, in turn, how we can make it better.”

Dr. Whitehurst is studying one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer, triple negative breast cancer, which earned its name by lacking three receptors that are targets for effective therapies.

Dr. Whitehurst will determine the effects in triple negative breast cancers of targeting a new receptor that is typically expressed in a subset of immune cells. She discovered the receptor gene CXCR3 by individually analyzing 18,000 genes in this cancer’s genome and determining which genes triple negative breast cancer cells need to sustain themselves and multiply. The work revealed that tumor cells appear to re-express and co-opt the CXCR3 receptor to support growth.  

The new grant funding will promote Dr. Whitehurst’s next step, testing to see if targeting this receptor with an available inhibitor has efficacy in pre-clinical model systems.

“We are excited about the opportunity to re-purpose an existing inhibitor as an anti-cancer agent for a discrete set of patients with limited therapeutic options,” Dr. Whitehurst said.

The Harold C. Simmons Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in North Texas. The center brings innovative cancer care to the region, while fostering groundbreaking basic research that has the potential to improve patient care and prevention of cancer worldwide.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty includes many distinguished members, including five who have been awarded Nobel Prizes since 1985. Numbering more than 2,700, the faculty is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide medical care in 40 specialties to nearly 91,000 hospitalized patients and oversee more than 2 million outpatient visits a year.