June 8, 2009

Hopkins scientists picked for cancer dream teams

A TV industry- and celebrity-driven cancer research project has chosen scientists at Johns Hopkins for two of five multi-institutional “dream teams” financed by Stand Up to Cancer grants totaling more than $6 million.

The grants, established by the Entertainment Industry Foundation, are funded with $73.6 million raised during a simultaneous prime-time broadcast on ABC, CBS and NBC television networks last September.

The two awards to Johns Hopkins-led teams were chosen by a 20-member panel of scientists, physicians and patient advocates who reviewed 237 applications.

The Johns Hopkins research will focus on pancreatic cancer and epigenetics, a relatively new field of research directed at understanding and manipulating gene alterations that can shut down natural cancer protection.

Stephen Baylin, deputy director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, will co-lead with Peter A. Jones, director of the University of Southern California/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center a $9.12 million three-year grant to study epigenetic changes that modify the way a cell packages its DNA sequence for regulating gene function. Abnormal DNA packaging silences genes that confer cancer protection in people with lung, breast and colon cancers. The Johns Hopkins/USCÐled dream team will conduct clinical trials and laboratory investigations to test potential treatments to reverse this silencing of genes.

“We will be looking for signatures in the genomes of tumor cells from patients with leukemia, lung, breast and colon cancer that can predict whether cancers in certain patients are susceptible to these therapies,” said Baylin, who is the Virginia & D.K. Ludwig Professor in Cancer Research. “Tracking the signatures can also help monitor patients’ response to the drug.”

Johns Hopkins scientists will receive approximately $3 million for its portion of the epigenetics grant. Other institutions in the epigenetic dream team are the University of Pittsburgh, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in New Mexico. Johns Hopkins team members are Nita Ahuja, Nilofer Azad, Malcolm Brock, Robert Casero Jr., Leslie Cope, Edward Gabrielson, James Herman, Rosalyn Juergens, William Matsui, Charles Rudin, Vered Stearns, Jeff Wang and Cynthia Zahnow.

For pancreatic cancer research, scientists at Johns Hopkins will be awarded $3.75 million in Stand Up to Cancer grants, plus clinical trial funding from the $18 million grant led by Craig Thompson, director of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and Daniel Von Hoff, physician in chief and director of the Clinical Translational Research Division at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, and chief scientific officer at Scottsdale Healthcare.

Johns Hopkins investigators will use their funds to test and develop drugs that target faulty enzymes that process glutamine and glucose and fatty acids in some pancreatic cancers. “There are some drugs already approved for diabetes management that have evidence of antitumor effects,” said Chi Dang, vice dean for research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and adviser for the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at Johns Hopkins. “These drugs could be combined with other therapies currently being tested for pancreatic cancer.”

The pancreatic cancer research team includes Dang, Manuel Hidalgo, Ralph Hruban, Kenneth Kinzler, Daniel Laheru, Anirban Maitra, Martin Pomper and Victor Velculescu, all from the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at Johns Hopkins; and David L. Vander Jagt, of the University of New Mexico.

Velculescu and Kinzler will scan patients’ genomes for genes that could benefit from glutamine- and glucose-blocking drugs.

Hidalgo and Maitra plan to track drug response. “We also will be looking for experimental drugs, not currently FDA-approved, which could have the same blocking effect on glucose and glutamine metabolism,” said Dang, professor of medicine, cell biology, oncology and pathology.