Researchers at UTHSC and St. Jude Earn $2.7 Million Grant

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Lawrence Pfeffer, PhD, director of the Center for Cancer Research at UTHSC, and Andrew M. Davidoff, MD, newly appointed chair of the Department of Surgery at St. Jude, have been awarded a more than $2.7 million grant.

Lawrence Pfeffer, PhD, professor of Pathology and director of the Center for Cancer Research at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and Andrew M. Davidoff, MD, newly appointed chair of the Department of Surgery at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, have been awarded a more than $2.7 million grant to study new strategies for treating glioma, a type of brain cancer. The five-year grant, which began on March 1, was awarded by the National Cancer Institute, a component of the National Institutes of Health. Total amount of the grant is $2,755,230.

“Malignant glioma is an incredibly devastating type of cancer since 90 percent of those who are diagnosed with the disease die within two years,” Dr. Pfeffer said. “Surgery only helps a limited number of cases.” The disease has been in the news since spring 2008 when Senator Ted Kennedy was reported to be suffering from a malignant glioma, for which he underwent brain surgery.

The goal of the study, for which Drs. Pfeffer and Davidoff are both principal investigators, is to determine whether interferon may have some efficacy in defeating the growth of cancer cells. Interferons are natural proteins produced by the cells of the immune system of most vertebrates. Dr. Pfeffer calls them the “first line of defense against any infection.” He has been studying interferon since 1977. In 2002, Dr. Pfeffer earned an endowed professorship, the E. Eric Muirhead Chair of Excellence in Pathology, and has held that distinguished chair ever since.

Dr. Davidoff’s academic interests at St Jude are focused on clinical and translational investigation and treatment of pediatric solid tumors, neuroblastoma in particular. Neuroblastoma is the most common extracranial solid cancer in childhood and the most common cancer in infancy. About 650 new cases are diagnosed in the United States every year. Dr. Davidoff’s research is focused on the development of two newly emerging strategies for the treatment of neuroblastoma (and other tumor types) — antiangiogenic therapy and gene therapy. In addition, his research also involves the use of gene transfer for hemophilia B and other monogenetic disorders.

Three years ago, Dr. Davidoff contacted Dr. Pfeffer and asked him to apply his expertise in measuring the levels of interferon in lab animals (mice and rats). Since that initial collaboration, the basic researcher and the surgeon-scientist have worked together on several projects, publishing papers and now receiving this joint grant.

“Cancer is so smart that it has found pathways to stop interferon from working as well as it can,” Dr. Pfeffer explained. “We want to find ways to overcome cancer’s resistance and perhaps help interferon induce the death of cancer cells.”

The Center for Cancer Research at the UT Health Science Center is the only adult cancer research facility in the Mid-South. “St. Jude does amazing work in pediatric cancer and there are a number of high quality clinical centers in the area for treating adult cancer patients,” Dr. Pfeffer noted, “but our Cancer Research Building is the only facility dedicated to laboratory discovery for adult cancers, and the development of new therapeutics and new protocols. We hope that, in five to 10 years, local clinicians will be implementing what we discover on our campus,” he added.

Deaths due to cardiovascular disease, stroke and infectious diseases have dropped dramatically since 1950; however, cancer death rates remain unchanged. Cancer deaths among men and women continue to increase. The American Cancer Society (ACS) projected that for 2006 cancer deaths would reach an estimated 291,270 and 273,560 for men and women, respectively. In the State of Tennessee the ACS estimated that in 2006 there would be a total of 32,140 new cancers diagnosed with 12,970 cancer deaths in the state that year. According to NCI statistics, African- Americans have 1.4-times higher cancer-related death rates than whites. African-Americans constitute the largest minority population in Tennessee.

Cancer mortality in the USA ranks Tennessee number 43 in incidence and 5th in the nation in mortality. Both numbers suggest much work needs to be done, Dr. Pfeffer noted. “The people of our state suffer from one of the highest incidences of cancer and one of the lowest survival rates,” he observed. “This grant will enable us to make discoveries in the lab that apply directly to patient care. That’s the core of the Health Science Center mission, to improve the health of the people of our state.”

Authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1937, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) was given a mandate to engage in certain fundamental activities: conducting and fostering cancer research; reviewing and approving grant-in-aid applications to support promising research projects on the causes, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer; collecting, analyzing, and disseminating the results of cancer research conducted in the United States and in other countries; and providing training and instruction in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Over the years, the NCI has evolved into the world’s pre-eminent cancer research organization.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is internationally recognized for its pioneering work in finding cures and saving children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases. Founded by late entertainer Danny Thomas and based in Memphis, Tenn., St. Jude freely shares its discoveries with scientific and medical communities around the world. No family ever pays for treatments not covered by insurance, and families without insurance are never asked to pay. St. Jude is financially supported by ALSAC, its fundraising organization. For more information, visit www.stjude.org.