Going Bold

Pelotonia Idea Grants Encourage Innovative Approaches to Difficult Questions

Twice a year, OSUCCC – James researchers compete for Pelotonia Idea Grants, which provide two years of funding to teams of OSUCCC – James scientists who propose novel ways to approach difficult problems.

The grants encourage researchers to submit original ideas and break new ground to hasten the development of safer, more effective cancer diagnosis, detection, treatment and prevention strategies.

The grants provide funding that awardees use for studies to test their hypotheses and produce data needed to obtain larger grants for more definitive research.

Since the program’s inception, funding has been awarded to 108 research teams. The collaborating OSUCCC – James researchers come from several Ohio State colleges and departments and three academic institutions, including Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Here are four examples of the Pelotonia Idea Grants awarded in 2016.

Understanding Potential Protective Effect of Female Hormones in Melanoma

Craig BurdMelanoma typically arises from moles that have cells with mutations in genes called BRAF and NRAS that promote cancer. Usually, these cells do not become cancerous, but when they do, the progression to cancer is thought to be triggered by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, such as the UV in sunlight, which causes additional damage to the cells.

Research shows that malignant melanoma occurs more often in men than in women, and that it is more often fatal in men. Why this happens is poorly understood, but growing evidence suggests that the hormone estrogen helps protect women against the disease.

The researchers in this idea grant study want to learn at the molecular level how estrogen protects against melanoma. their work focuses on a protein called estrogen receptor beta (ERb),a molecule present in normal melanocytes that has several functions, including regulating genes involved in the repair of damaged DNA. The levels of ERb drop in melanoma cells as the cancer develops.

This study will help the investigators learn what ERb does in normal melanocytes and how it contributes to preventing melanoma, and it will identify targets for future drugs to prevent the disease.

Helping Oropharynx Cancer Survivors Breathe and Swallow Safely

Loni ArreseThe incidence of head and neck cancer has increased 225 percent during the last two decades. the increase is largely due to the growing incidence of a type of throat cancer caused by HPV (human papillomavirus) infection. called oropharyngeal cancer, it occurs mainly in middle-aged people who have no significant history of tobacco or alcohol use.

Oropharynx cancers that test positive for HPV are often treated with chemotherapy and radiation. These treatments damage muscles and structures in the throat, causing swallowing problems, which also may impair the person’s ability to protect the airway during swallowing. That, in turn, can result in lower quality of life, use of a feeding tube, hospitalizations for aspiration pneumonia and a shorter life span.

This Idea Grant study will evaluate the use of a targeted exercise program called expiratory muscle strength training (EMST) in these patients. EMST currently is used in people with certain degenerative muscular diseases to improve swallowing function. Tesearchers will measure the clinical effects of traditional swallow intervention studies versus traditional swallowing interventions plus EMST on swallowing and respiratory function.

The findings could lead to improved targeted swallowing and respiratory-strength exercise programs, and help these cancer survivors maintain better health and a higher quality of life.

Gaining Insight Into Why Low-Risk Breast Cancer Patients Choose Double Mastectomy

Clara LeeA growing number of women with early-stage breast cancer are choosing to have both breasts removed. Generally, double mastectomies are recommended only for women at high risk of cancer in the opposite breast. That is, those with a strong family history of breast cancer or who have a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.

However, the procedure is most often performed in women who do not have a BRCA mutation or a family history of breast cancer and who do not need the procedure for medical reasons.

Potential harms of a double mastectomy include a higher risk of complications, longer surgery and recovery times, and greater short-term costs. Women who have complications from breast reconstruction are at risk for poorer body image or poorer sexual outcomes.

This study will evaluate how women with early-stage breast cancer make treatment decisions and how communication with their physicians affects their decision-making. The study is developing a novel mobile application that patients can use to easily record their conversations with providers. The study also examines women's knowledge, preference and expectations about future well-being.

Information from this study will be used to obtain funding for a larger, multicenter study. Ultimately, the research should help physicians communicate with women with breast cancer about the risks, benefits and need for double mastectomy.

Evaluating 'Research Autopsies' for Understanding Advanced Cancers

Sameek RoychowdhuryScientists now know that the cancer cells in a patient's tumor have many differences in the genes that they carry. This phenomenon is called tumor heterogeneity.

These genetic differences can help some tumor cells survive during treatment. They might, for example, make the cells less sensitive to the person's ;chemotherapy or targeted therapy. Those few surviving cancer cells might later cause the cancer to recur.

This study, funded by an idea grant obtained by Sameek Roychowdhury, MD, PhD, and led by physician-scientist and medical-oncologist trainee Hui-Zi Chen, MD, PhD (who has also received a Pelotonia postdoctoral fellowship), is designed to gain a better understanding of tumor heterogeneity and how it leads to drug resistance and cancer recurrence in advanced cancer. The researchers, who will have received informed consent for the procedure, will perform rapid research autopsies soon after patients die of their cancer. The autopsy involves taking samples of cancer cells from organs affected by the disease.

The team will study these cancer cells for genetic differences to better understand how some of them acquired drug resistance. They will then use this knowledge to advance the discovery of new cancer drugs.

In addition, the study will evaluate a form of biopsy called liquid biopsy. This type of biopsy examines DNA from tumor cells that is isolated from blood plasma or urine. The researchers will determine whether circulating tumor DNA can be used to monitor how well a patient's targeted therapy or chemotherapy is working.

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