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CU Cancer Center Scientists Receive Support from Wings of Hope for Pancreatic Research

Researchers are studying specific proteins and targeted radiation to understand and develop therapies for pancreatic cancer treatment.

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Written by Rachel Sauer on January 19, 2022

Two research investigations being led by University of Colorado Cancer Center researchers are receiving grant support this year from Wings of Hope for Pancreatic Research.

Carlo Marchetti, PhD, an assistant research professor of infectious disease, and Todd Pitts, PhD, an assistant research professor of medical oncology, received $50,000 for pilot grant funding to support their research on the role the NLRP3 protein plays in Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma (PDAC) progression.

Sana Karam, MD, PhD, an associate professor of radiation oncology, received $300,000 in pilot grant funding for research studying the use of targeted radiation therapy in combination with a therapeutic that inhibits the STAT3 protein from promoting tumor cell survival in pancreatic cancer.

“A lot of times, we go into these pilot studies with little to no preliminary data,” Pitts explains. “We have a hypothesis, and then Wings of Hope says, ‘Hey, that’s a great idea, we’re going to support this research so that you can figure out some of the basics.’

“Maureen (Shul, Wings of Hope for Pancreatic Research founder) has been very generous in supporting pancreatic cancer researchers on campus, who may have an idea but need to gather more data that can then lead to larger grant funding,” Pitts says.

Studying the NLRP3 protein

Marchetti has been studying the NLRP3 protein for more than a decade. His research led him to find that NLRP3 protein is unregulated in pancreatic cancer, which prompted him to reach out to Pitts, a pancreatic cancer researcher, for collaboration.

“We believe that this protein is important in suppressing the ability of our body to fight pancreatic cancer progression,” Marchetti says. “This protein is very elevated in pancreatic cancer patients, so we started by looking at why it is elevated and the consequences of this elevation.”

A goal of much pancreatic cancer research is to develop therapies that will help providers catch pancreatic cancer sooner. “Pancreatic cancer is very hard to treat because it’s usually caught at very late stages and there’s very little to no symptoms until those late stages,” Pitts says.

Focusing on targeted radiation

In the research Karam is leading, highly targeted radiation is being used to target tumors in the pancreas, an organ that is home to many immunosuppressive cells that inhibit good immune cells. Rather than using radiation as a blanket cancer killer, Karam is studying whether a type of targeted radiation therapy can be used preventatively against cancer recurrence.

This research looks at a sequence of radiation followed by immunotherapy treatments. The targeted radiation invigorates an immune response, Karam says, possibly by unmasking cancer cells to T cells, which may not have seen the cancer cells previously.

The Wings of Hope grant will support researchers in translating data from mouse studies combining STAT3 antisense oligonucleotide with targeted radiation in a Phase I/II human clinical trial to assess safety assessment and develop biomarkers.

Featured Experts
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Carlo Marchetti, PhD

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Todd Pitts, PhD

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Sana Karam, MD, PhD

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