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V Foundation grants bolster cancer initiatives

November 17, 2016 | Dagny Stuart

Ray Blind and Justin Balko

Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center investigators Raymond Blind, Ph.D., left, and Justin Balko, Ph.D., Pharm.D., recently received grant awards from The V Foundation for Cancer Research. (photo by Steve Green)

Two Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) investigators have earned grant awards from The V Foundation for Cancer Research, continuing the foundation’s support for innovative cancer research initiatives at VICC.

Raymond Blind, Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine, Biochemistry and Pharmacology, has received a two-year V Foundation grant to examine how proteins induce cancerous tumors to grow.

Blind’s research is focused on several types of cancer, including liver cancer. While cancer rates for many types of cancer are falling, the incidence of liver and endometrial cancer among African-Americans and Hispanics continues to rise.

Blind’s laboratory recently discovered that “an enzyme controls organ growth by placing a ‘molecular barcode’” on the DNA. Under healthy conditions, this barcode is only present when an organ is supposed to grow. But in cancer the barcode is always present, commanding it to grow into a tumor.”

The next step is to try to identify these barcodes in mouse liver tumors. The research could enable the development of new therapies for liver cancer patients and provide a way for physicians to determine which drugs might work best for individual patients.

Justin Balko, Ph.D., Pharm.D., assistant professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology and leader of Molecular Oncology in the Center for Cancer Targeted Therapies, has been awarded a two-year grant to determine what makes some cancer therapies, especially new immunotherapies, more effective against the disease.

Most types of cancer that respond to immunotherapies tend to have high numbers of gene mutations or DNA changes.

“Mutations sometimes cause changes that make the tumor cell look like it has been infected by a virus or bacteria. This makes the immune system attack the tumor, just as it would attack a cold or another infection. Patients whose tumors have more mutations often have better outcomes, probably because they trigger the immune system to start attacking the cancer,” Balko said.

Unfortunately, cancer types with fewer mutations may not respond as well to immunotherapies.

Balko’s laboratory will investigate whether specific combinations of therapies will help make immunotherapies more effective against these low-mutation tumors.

The V Foundation for Cancer Research was formed in 1993 by ESPN and Jim Valvano, a former NCAA National Championship basketball coach and sports commentator. “Coach V” died that same year at 46 from an aggressive form of cancer.

Since that time, The V Foundation has awarded more than $150 million to more than 120 facilities nationwide and awards all direct cash donations to cancer research and related programs.