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Sylvester Researchers Receive Grants From the State of Florida

Disparities in Liver and Lung Cancers

The Florida Department of Health has awarded Paulo S. Pinheiro, M.D., Ph.D., a research associate professor at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, a $264,356 grant to study the risk, etiology, and mortality of lung and liver cancers.

Researcher working in a lab at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center
The Barredo Lab focuses on pediatric hematology-oncology research. 

“We propose to study the lung and liver cancer experience for 10 distinct racial and ethnic groups in Florida, beginning with the typically studied major groups, such as Black, Hispanic, and White,” Dr. Pinheiro said. “We will also focus on distinct subgroups with sizable populations in Florida, including U.S.-born African Americans, Afro-Caribbean, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Central American/Mexican, and South American.”

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death and liver cancer is the fastest-growing cancer both in the U.S. and in Florida. Racial and ethnic disparities have been shown for these cancers.

Studying Leukemia Cells

Understanding how leukemia cells survive metabolic stress is the focus of a new study by Julio C. Barredo, M.D., professor of pediatrics, medicine, and biochemistry & molecular biology, the Toppel Family Endowed Chair in Pediatric Hematology-Oncology, director of Children's Cancer Programs at Sylvester, and director of the Division of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology.

“Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common pediatric cancer and the main cause of cancer-related death in children and adolescents,” said Dr. Barredo. “We need to develop more effective treatment strategies for high-risk, chemotherapy-resistant and relapsed ALL patients.”

Dr. Barredo received a $219,138 award from the “Live Like Bella” program for the study, “Targeting Compensatory Survival Responses at the Intersection of Energy Metabolism and Epigenetics in Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.”

FOXC1 - A Driver of Metastatic Disease

In her Sylvester laboratory, Marzenna Blonska, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine, has found high levels of a protein called FOXC1 in lymphoma patients with disseminated disease. “There is compelling evidence that elevated FOXC1 is associated with metastatic disease in both solid tumors and lymphoma,” she said. She hopes that in the future, FOXC1 could serve as a biomarker to identify patients likely to benefit from aggressive treatment strategies at an early stage of the disease.

Dr. Blonska used a novel imaging-based screening method and her own transgenic mice models to identify compounds that could block FOXC1 activity. “We want to continue this research, along with studying how cancers use FOXC1 for their advantage to migrate to other organs, including the brain. Our unique mouse model allows us to study the role of this poorly understood protein in any cancer type.”

Dr. Blonska was awarded a $636,610 Bankhead-Coley grant for a study, “Elucidation and Targeting of Novel Molecular Determinants of Tumor Progression and Dissemination.”

Improving Cancer Pain Management

A new Sylvester study is examining how a patient’s gut microbiome may affect pain associated with metastatic breast cancer that has infiltrated the bone. “Opioids are the gold standard for the management of moderate to severe cancer pain, but the effect wears off with time,” said Sabita Roy, Ph.D., professor of surgery. “Our hypothesis is that altering the gut microbiome could reduce the level of inflammatory cytokines contributing to chronic pain.”

Dr. Roy is co-principal investigator with Sundaram Ramakrishnan, Ph.D., professor of surgery, in a study, “Targeting the Gut Microbiome to Improve Cancer Pain Management by Opioids,” funded with a $636,610 Bankhead-Coley grant. “This is my first cancer grant and I am highly motivated to contribute directly to cancer research,” said Dr. Roy.

Cancer pain is a quality of life issue for many patients, added Dr. Ramakrishnan. “Our laboratory studies have shown direct involvement of the microbiome in pain modulation. It may be possible to reduce pain by reconstituting populations of bacteria in the gut. While this grant focuses on breast cancer, our work has implications for pain associated with other cancers.”

Proteins and Breast Cancer

A significant percentage of breast cancer patients whose tumors have been removed do not respond to estrogen inhibitors, resulting in metastasis as the malignant cells spread to other organs. “To improve outcomes, we need to develop new agents aimed at reversing resistance to hormonal therapies,” said Lluis Morey, Ph.D., assistant professor of human genetics.

In his laboratory, Dr. Morey is studying the role of polycomb proteins in regulating treatment resistance to current therapies. He received a $636,610 Bankhead-Coley grant for his study, “Mechanisms of Polycomb Complexes in Luminal Breast Cancer.”

Calling the investigation of polycomb proteins a “promising approach,” Dr. Morey said, “Modulating these functions could be a potential new therapeutic option for hormone-resistant breast cancer patients.”