There are four broad categories of cancer research. The University of Colorado Cancer Center has researchers working in each of these four areas, collaborating to prevent and conquer cancer.
- Basic research seeks to understand how fundamental biological processes work. In cancer research, it provides the foundation for advances.
- Clinical research tests medical devices, drugs, or other interventions in human volunteers to improve treatments, detection, and other aspects of patient care.
- Translational research facilitates moving basic research findings into the clinic and clinical research findings into everyday care.
- Population-based research explores the causes and trends of cancer, as well as the factors that affect the delivery and outcomes of cancer care in specific populations.
Here are the top research stories from the past year for National Cancer Research Month.
CU Cancer Center members Paul MacLean, PhD, and Peter Kabos, MD, received a $3 million R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute to look at the relationship between obesity and breast cancer. They are looking specifically to see if intermittent fasting and time-restricted feeding may help prevent risk of recurrence in women who recently completed treatment for breast cancer.
“This is a question that we get from patients all the time — what type of strategies should they take to improve their outcomes both during and after treatment?” Kabos says. “What we’re trying to do is put data behind that answer.”
A discovery by CU Cancer Center member Traci Lyons, PhD, is providing new hope for women with metastatic ER-positive breast cancer. Lyons is researching semaphorin 7a, a molecule that appears to drive metastasis of breast cancer.
“Women with metastatic ER-positive breast cancer often develop resistance to antiestrogen drugs such as Tamoxifen or Fulvestrant. We think that the expression of this semaphorin molecule is one reason this resistance occurs.” Lyons says.
Lyons was awarded a METAvivor grant that will help her search for existing drugs that would have an effect on semaphorin 7a and stop cancer cell growth.
CU Cancer Center member Lisa McKenzie PhD, MPH, is looking into data from the Colorado Central Cancer Registry to compare children diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) to children diagnosed with other types of cancer.
“What we found was that children with ALL were four times more likely to be living in the highest density of oil and gas areas than children diagnosed with another kind of cancer,” McKenzie says.
Thanks to funding from the American Cancer Society, McKenzie has started to look at a larger population and gather additional data.
CU Cancer Center member Martin McCarter, MD, is helping to lead a clinical trial that may result in better outcomes for mucosal melanomas. This type of melanoma is found in the mucous membranes in the head, neck, eyes, respiratory tract, and genitourinary region.
“It turns out you can get melanomas in all those spots,” McCarter says. “They tend to be extremely difficult to treat, they tend to be more advanced when they’re diagnosed, and they respond very differently than cutaneous or standard melanomas.”
The research team has identified that mucosal melanomas have a much lower expression of a key critical innate immune-sensing pathway, making them less likely to respond to standard immunotherapy. They are starting a phase 1 clinical study in humans to study how a specific hypomethylating agent called decitabine, used in conjunction with the immunotherapy drug nivolumab, might aid in treatment.
CU Cancer Center member Sachin Wani, MD, is leading a study to test the effectiveness of a novel diagnostic platform to see if it can help endoscopists better identify cancer in patients with a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, a premalignant condition for esophageal adenocarcinoma.
“The goal is to find patients early in their progression, so that they can avoid having to go through chemotherapy, radiation, and esophagectomy, which are treatments we reserve for advanced-stage cancers,” Wani says.
A study led by CU Cancer Center member Ross Camidge, MD, PhD, has helped to define MET amplification as a rare but potentially actionable driver for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Current targeted treatments are based on either genetic mutations or gene rearrangements (where two separate genes fuse to create an oncogene), but Camidge’s latest research introduces a third means of defining NSCLC subsets: gene amplification, which occurs when there is an increase in the usual number of copies of a particular gene. Amplification of a specific gene called MET, which appears to be a driver of NSCLC, can be targeted with the existing cancer drug crizotinib.
“It has been a long and difficult course for this rare subtype of lung cancer, but I think this is fairly good proof that there are some patients where MET amplification alone is driving their cancer,” Camidge says.
Two collaborative publications by CU Cancer Center deputy director James DeGregori, PhD, and CU Cancer Center member Eric Pietras, PhD, provide insights into how chronic inflammation can serve as a key factor in the development of leukemia and other blood cancers.
"When we get old, many of us become chronically inflamed,” DeGregori explains. “Not everyone experiences the same level of inflammation, but higher inflammation tends to coincide with worse outcomes for people. Our data would suggest that old age, and the inflammation associated with it, could contribute to the increased leukemia rates that occur in the elderly, particularly acute myeloid leukemia.”
CU Cancer Center researcher Adam Green, MD, has found, through extensive data analysis, that the youngest patients with brain tumors — those ages birth to 3 months — have about half the five-year survival rate as children ages 1 to 19.
“It’s unusual to see infants or babies with brain tumors, but we do see them,” Green explains. “We generally just don’t have the same standards of treatment that we do for older children. We also know that infants can’t report their own symptoms like older kids often can.”
A study by CU Cancer Center researchers led by Martin McCarter, MD, shows that immunotherapy alone may have equivalent or better outcomes than completion node dissection for stage III melanoma.
“We now have effective immunotherapy, which is overcoming some of the limitations of surgery while improving outcomes,” says McCarter.
CU Cancer Center researchers Swati Patel, MD, and Jordan Karlitz, MD, co-authored recent research showing people in their 20s and 30s are seeing a steep rise in colorectal cancer incidence.
“We are increasingly seeing young patients diagnosed with late-stage colorectal cancers. These are often patients who have had symptoms, such as rectal bleeding or iron deficiency, for some time and have had delays in evaluation,” says Patel.