Stephanie Sullivan, MD

Funded by the V Foundation’s Virginia Vine event

Endometrial cancer (EC) is the most common cancer of the female reproductive tract in the US. There has been an increase in the amount of this cancer and more women are dying of this than in the past. Black women are twice as likely to die from EC than white women. There are many possible reasons for this, one of which might be that Black women have different stressors than white women and this can change the way the immune system works with chemotherapy to fight cancer. Our center is leading a one- of-a-kind research study dedicated to Black women with EC to better understand if a new immunotherapy treatment works as well in Black women as it does in white women. We hope to look for markers that can help us predict if someone will respond to the new treatment or not. These biomarkers can be used to help women decide if a treatment is right for them and are likely to be different between Black and white women. We plan to look at three types of biomarkers: allostatic load (a measure of the impact of stress on the body), microbiome (different bacteria make up in our bodies), and cytokines (markers of how our immune system is working). We hope to find out if any of these biomarkers can help us predict which patients will respond to therapy and help improve outcomes for Black women. 

Daniel Lee, MD

Funded by the V Foundation’s Virginia Vine event

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cells are immune cells from patients that are engineered to target and kill cancers (not normal tissue).  This is a new and exciting way to treat cancer. CARs have been wildly successful in treating children with leukemia that does not respond to any other therapy, saving many lives.  I ran one of the first clinical trials to show this.  Sadly, many patients experience severe or life-threatening side effects.  The only drug that helps is currently on national shortage.  This means some patients needing this lifesaving therapy may not get it.  Even if that drug was available, CAR therapy still needs to be safer.  We developed a chimeric inhibitory receptor (CIR) that we believe does just that.  When it is combined with a CAR it dramatically decreases the production of the side effect causing proteins called cytokines.  Importantly, it still kills tumors.  Funding from this grant will allow us to make more versions of the CIR that can put the brakes on CARs in different ways.  We will test the best ones in mice that have leukemia to confirm they still work.  Results from these experiments will allow us to start a clinical trial of CIR-containing CAR T-cells for patients with leukemia or lymphoma here at the University of Virginia using our new CAR T-cell manufacturing facility.  This unique approach to improving safety will have a dramatic impact on Virginians as well as all others with cancer who need life-saving CAR T-cell therapy. 

Francine Garrett-Bakelman, M.D., Ph.D.

V Scholar Plus Award – extended funding for exceptional V Scholars

Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) is the most common acute leukemia in adults. The majority of patients diagnosed are over the age of sixty and individuals in this age range experience poor response to treatment and worse clinical outcomes compared to younger patients. Despite advances in the field, clinical outcomes for AML patients over the age of sixty remain poor. To improve upon current treatment options for AML patients over the age of sixty, it is essential to better understand the mechanisms that drive the disease in these patients. The project proposed utilized data generated from AML patients older than 60 to identify RBM47 as a potential biomarker and driver of the disease. We will utilize data from another set of patients to confirm the association between the level of RBM47 in AML cells and clinical outcomes in these patients. Furthermore, in order to identify how RBM47 may contribute to the disease, we will determine what aspect(s) of AML biology RBM47 may regulate. Collectively, these findings will contribute to a body of knowledge for a long-term goal of identifying potential targetable mechanisms of disease that could be used to develop new and more effective treatments for AML patients over the age of sixty.

James Larner, M.D. & David Brautigan, Ph.D.

Funded by the V Foundation’s Virginia Vine event

Prostate cancer afflicts one in seven men and is their second leading cause of death, justifying development of more effective therapies. Prostate cancer depends on testosterone binding to and activating the androgen receptor (AR), which in turn promotes the growth of prostate cancer. Current therapies for prostate cancer are aimed at reducing AR activity, either by blocking the production of testosterone or through agents which compete with testosterone for binding to the AR. Our approach is depleting cancer cells of the AR protein by promoting its degradation. We will accomplish this by manipulating the pathways (either genetically or with drugs) which control protein degradation. Our preliminary data show that we can promote degradation of the AR in cells in test tubes. In this proposal we will test if we can promote AR degradation in mouse models of prostate cancer.

Michael Weber, Ph.D.

The goals of “precision medicine” in cancer are (1) to identify the molecules that drive
the cancer and (2) develop “smart drugs” that block these drivers. These “smart drugs”
should stop the cancer but not be toxic. Many “smart drugs” have been developed, but
the cancer cells adapt and find escape routes. We get many hopeful “responses” to
therapy but disappointingly few “cures.” Our research identifies escape routes that
cancer cells use to evade death, and then uses additional drugs to block the escape
from treatment.

Our approach is already showing success in treating a blood cancer called Mantle Cell
Lymphoma. One of our combinations is causing complete responses in over half the
patients we treat. Unfortunately, many cases show resistance to our drugs, even
though the patients had never previously seen them. We are researching the ways that
cancer cells become resistant to these powerful drug combinations. Our goal is to
achieve deeper responses to therapy and turn the frequent “responses” into genuine

Michael Devitt, M.D.

Funded by the V Foundation’s Virginia Vine event

This project aims to improve the enrollment of men with prostate cancer into studies that require specific changes in DNA in order to be eligible. The largest barrier to enrolling patients is obtaining information about their DNA. Current standards of practice do not have clear recommendations on when to test the DNA of men with prostate cancer. Insurance does not always cover the DNA testing needed to get this information. The University of Virginia has two research programs open that obtain DNA testing on men with prostate cancer. This grant will support the efforts of the Clinical Research Outreach Program at UVA to recruit men with prostate cancer into these research programs in order to obtain DNA testing on a greater number of men with prostate cancer.

Riccardo Autorino, M.D., Ph.D.

Funded by the V Foundation’s Virginia Vine event

Prostate cancer represents the second most common cancer in men and the fifth leading cause of death worldwide. African American men in the US are more likely to develop prostate cancer and more likely to develop aggressive types when compared to other races. Between 2012 and 2016, 179 out of 100,000 African American men compared to 104 out of 100,000 Caucasian men were diagnosed with prostate cancer African American men with prostate cancer have a 2.5-fold greater risk of death from the disease. 

Racial disparities exist in many disease types, including cancer. The development of cancer and survival of the disease are likely to include many components, including later detection and treatment, genetic factors, differences in biology, and social factors. Participation in cancer clinical trials provides access to new therapies, including potentially life-saving experimental therapy in patients for whom options are limited and prognosis is poor. African American patients are underrepresented in clinical trials in general, and more specifically in prostate cancer trials. The aim of this project is to promote, facilitate, and foster participation of minorities (with special emphasis on the African American population) in ongoing and to-be-opened prostate cancer clinical trials at VCU Massey Cancer Center (MCC). This will be accomplished by identifying current barriers, by increasing awareness among patients and physicians about available opportunities offered by MCC, and by organizing a prostate cancer clinical trial team that will guide eligible patients through screening and clinical trial treatment. 

Stephanie Van Bebber

Funded by the V Foundation’s Virginia Vine event, in honor of WWE Connor’s Cure

Drugs are needed to treat cancer. Clinical trials are done to make sure drugs are safe and effective. Individuals volunteer for clinical trials. In cancer clinical trials, the volunteers usually have cancer. Volunteers may also be young or old, male or female and rich or poor. The important thing is to get a mix of volunteers who are similar to the cancer patients who will take the drug. Not very many people participate in clinical trials. More white people participate than any other race. This means that we don’t always know whether drugs are safe and effective in all people. Also, we don’t know if people are getting equal opportunity to participate in clinical trials. This study will look whether patients at Inova Schar Cancer Institute know about clinical trials. This study will also develop a program to help make all people, no matter what race, aware of clinical trials.

William Petersen, M.D.

Funded by the V Foundation’s Virginia Vine event, in honor of WWE Connor’s Cure

Cure rates for children with cancer are improving, but cancer still comes back for many kids after finishing therapy. When cancer comes back it is more difficult to cure, and new treatments are needed to help these patients. The best way to develop new treatments is to treat patients with new therapies while collecting detailed information about how they tolerate the treatment and if it gets rid of their cancer – this is called being treated on a clinical trial, a research study designed to learn about how new treatments work for patients. These studies that involve new treatments are usually only offered at large hospitals that are connected to medical schools, so many patients are sent away from their homes to receive these treatments. Others choose to stay closer to home and not receive the newest therapies for their cancer. Often, there are research studies closer to home than their doctors realize. Getting this information to the doctors in our region would help make sure patients receive the newest therapies for their cancers while staying close to home. This grant would allow us to travel to nearby medical practices to tell the doctors about the new therapies that we offer at UVA as part of clinical trials, especially treatments that are being developed that allow the patient’s own immune system fight their cancer (called “immunotherapy”). Spreading this information will hopefully increase the number of patients that are treated on these research studies, and help cure more kids of their cancer.

Gita Massey, M.D.

Funded by the V Foundation’s Virginia Vine event, in honor of WWE Connor’s Cure

Cancer in children is rare, accounting for less than 1% of all cancer cases in the USA. Clinical trials are used to determine the most effective and safest treatment for a disease and are commonly used in cancer treatment for children, adolescents, and young adults. The main reason that children are not enrolled on clinical trials is that there is not an open trial available. However, some nationally available trials could be opened faster when needed in local hospitals or cancer centers. Currently, the process is quite complicated and involves many steps. Our goal is to develop a “library” of available clinical trials that could be activated quickly on an as needed basis for children with rare tumors or with a cancer that does not respond to standard treatment. We will examine the barriers to rapid activation, educate the committees that are involved in clinical trial activation at our institution about the uniqueness of childhood cancer, and come up with a process for rapid clinical trial activation for childhood cancer at the Massey Cancer Center.

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