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State Cancer Research Grants Awarded to UT Austin

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AUSTIN, Texas — Cancer research is getting a boost at The University of Texas at Austin after several research teams received grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

One of the two new grants is going to researchers in the Dell Medical School. It will be used to expand colorectal cancer prevention services among vulnerable populations in Central Texas — specifically adding new rural and medically underserved communities. It will expand services, originally funded by CPRIT three years ago, that are focused on improving low screening rates through a mailed test-kit initiative.

Since 2017, as part of a collaborative effort between Dell Med and CommUnityCare Health Centers (CUC), more than 33,000 fecal immunochemical tests have been mailed to adult CUC patients who have an average risk of colorectal cancer. Approximately 6,900 patients completed the tests, resulting in 266 colonoscopies, which can detect colon polyps. The growths are then removed to prevent them from developing into cancer. The exams also identify cancer at an early stage, when it is curable. The expansion program will continue the mailing of tests to CUC patients, and it will add new patients through a partnership with Lone Star Circle of Care.

At-home testing is one component of a coordinated colorectal cancer prevention campaign with CUC, which also includes increased clinic-based screenings and comprehensive support services, that has effectively doubled the colorectal screening rate among the target population.

“These evidence-based awards are part of a strong cancer prevention and control program at Dell Med that works in coordination with critical community partners equally committed to tackling cancer,” said Dr. Michael Pignone, MPH, chair of Dell Med’s Department of Internal Medicine, interim chair of its Department of Population Health and director of Cancer Prevention and Control for the Livestrong Cancer Institutes. “Importantly, this campaign is also raising community awareness about the importance of making colorectal cancer prevention screenings available to every person who needs one,” he said.

The second grant will help fund a new project in the College of Natural Sciences. Tanya Paull will lead research to better understand what happens when cells experience DNA damage, causing inflammation that is often linked to tumor growth. Chemotherapy and radiation are used to treat many cancers and to block cancer cell growth — but they also can generate massive DNA damage in exposed tissues. This causes several problems, including inflammation in surrounding tissue, and ultimately can cause secondary tumors to grow. Paull and her team will explore the role of a specific signaling enzyme called ATM in this process, while looking for ways to potentially block the inflammatory response in cells that promotes growth in human cancers.

Several other projects are already underway at UT Austin thanks to previous CPRIT funding, including a pair of projects in the Cockrell School of Engineering. One aims to develop an antibody treatment for medulloblastoma, the most common type of cancerous brain tumor in children, as a less invasive alternative to radiation therapy. The other seeks to reduce a side effect of breast cancer antibody trastuzumab that can lead to damage to cardiac tissue by taking advantage of the low pH environment created by cancer cells. And in the College of Pharmacy, another project seeks to develop new therapeutics to treat patients with drug-resistant melanomas.

The two new grants are among 62 announced by CPRIT. Together, the awards total approximately $114 million and will be used to promote cancer research in Texas.