Two new grants aim to advance pancreatic cancer treatment

July 24, 2019 | by Cara Martinez

Pancreatic Cancer Cell A pancreatic cancer cell
Pancreatic cancer is a challenging disease, but two City of Hope researchers — Yuan Chen, Ph.D.,  and Xiaochun Yu, M.D, Ph.D.  — have committed their careers to unlocking answers and improving outcomes for patients.
 
Chen and Yu’s unique approaches to tackling the disease were recently recognized by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), which awarded both scientists $500,000 Translational Research Grants — a total gift of $1 million.
 
“PanCAN is proud to support our first-ever City of Hope research grant recipients, Drs. Chen and Yu,” said Julie Fleshman, J.D., M.B.A., president and CEO of PanCAN. “Their promising work will help us better understand the basic biology of the disease and potentially develop new and better treatments for patients who so desperately deserve them.”
 
Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States and is projected to become the second around 2020. This year alone, more than 56,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease.
 
Chen, whose overall research focus is the development of novel therapies to address several cancers, will use her grant to evaluate a new immuno-oncology mechanism for treating pancreatic cancer.
 
According to Chen’s research summary, two types of T cells play key roles in fighting pancreatic and other cancers: effector T cells that kill cancer cells and regulatory T cells that inhibit the activity of effector T cells. Emerging research and Chen’s preliminary data indicate that blocking the signaling pathways controlled by one specific mechanism reduces regulatory T cell numbers and function while enhancing the ability of effector T cells to infiltrate and kill cancer cells.
 
This understanding opens the door to using immunotherapies — treatments involving a patient’s own immune system — which have historically proved unsuccessful in treating pancreatic cancer.
 
“This grant will advance the field at large, and our research program, and move us closer to developing new therapies for pancreatic cancer,” said Chen, who serves as the dean of transdisciplinary research and professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine in the Beckman Research Institute.
 
“Pancreatic cancer remains one of the deadliest diseases in the country, and little progress has been made in patient survival over the last decade,” she added. “Our ultimate hope is to contribute to the eventual cure of this disease.” 
 
Yu’s overall research focus is on DNA damage repair and its role in tumor suppression. His group not only examines the underlying molecular mechanism, but also translates basic research findings into clinical cancer treatment.
 
A preliminary research study conducted by Yu and his team identified a small molecular compound that may be used to treat pancreatic cancer. With his PanCAN grant, Yu will examine if this compound can eradicate the disease in laboratory-based models. Funding will specifically allow Yu to develop and test the compound.
 
“Our project is high risk and high payback, which usually cannot be supported by federal grants,” said Yu, professor in the Department of Cancer Genetics and Epigenetics. “However, PanCAN provides a rare opportunity for us to perform this exciting research project.”
 
“We look forward to relieving the pain and suffering associated with pancreatic cancer for patients and their families,” Yu said.
 
City of Hope offers one of the most experienced pancreatic cancer programs in the United States. As a National Cancer Institute-designed comprehensive cancer center, the multidisciplinary care team is equipped to treat the most complex cases and meet unique patient needs.
 
The program offers minimally invasive, robotically assisted surgery and procedures such as ablation and embolization, ultraprecise radiation therapy like helical TomoTherapy, and unique treatment options and pioneering drug research like Chen’s and Yu’s.  

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