University Cancer Research Fund creates winning research partnership

Chapel Hill, NC - A disagreement between Nancy Allbritton, MD, PhD and David Lawrence, PhD over which cancer - breast or prostate - should be the higher priority in their partnership resulted in two successful NIH grant proposals. Lawrence is taking the lead on a prostate cancer grant while Allbritton leads a breast cancer grant – totaling almost $5 million over the next five years.

Nancy Allbritton, MD, PhD and David Lawrence, PhD both arrived in Chapel Hill in 2007.

Allbritton moved to UNC from the University of California at Irvine, and Lawrence from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

They decided to come to UNC for similar reasons – a top-notch chemistry department that meshed well with their interests, an outstanding medical school, and a first-rate cancer center. Both of them are members of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in addition to their appointment in the College of Arts and Sciences and both were looking for research partners. Allbritton notes, “Most of my work is very interdisciplinary and depends on high quality collaborations with clinicians and basic biomedical scientists.”

Soon after their arrival, they realized that their research interests overlapped. Although they were aware of each other’s work, “It was the first time we had ever met,” said Lawrence, who in addition to his appointment in Chemistry is a Fred Eshelman Distinguished Professor in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy Icon indicating that a link will open an external site.. “We have very similar interests but bring to the table different tools to attack the biological problems that interest us. Nancy really knows how to manipulate and design analytical chemistry technology in a way that goes beyond the frontiers of science. I do the same thing, but at the molecular level.”

Allbritton asked Lawrence to discuss a possible collaboration over lunch, which he accepted, joking, “How could I say no when she was paying?”  For her part, Allbritton is happy that a simple lunch ‘bribed’ Lawrence to participate in a scientific collaboration that is now paying huge dividends, thanks to an investment by the University Cancer Research Fund (UCRF).

They both credit UCRF with providing the opportunity to turn that lunch conversation into a reality. They asked themselves, “Wouldn’t it be great not only to tell whether a patient has cancer (or that it has returned) with a simple blood test, but also to be able to tell that patient which combination of cancer drugs will work? In short, we could know in six hours rather than six months whether a particular drug regimen will be effective.” The pair went on to invent a tool to do just that for leukemia – the first target of their research.

Once they proved their concept, this dynamic duo faced a disagreement over where to next test their strategy. “Nancy felt we should turn our attention to breast cancer, whereas I felt prostate cancer rated a higher priority,” Lawrence noted (with tongue firmly in cheek). Their agreement to disagree resulted in two successful NIH grant proposals, with Lawrence taking the lead on the prostate cancer grant and Allbritton leading the breast cancer grant – totaling almost $5 million over the next five years.

“While breast and prostate cancer are very different in many ways, both are nearly impossible to treat after they have metastasized,” said Lawrence.

“The UCRF funding really jump-started the collaboration,” says Allbritton. But the scientists hope that the return on this investment will be much greater than the sum of their NIH grants. Their goal: to give clinicians another weapon in the early-detection arsenal and a tool to create personalized treatment for many different cancers.

UNC Lineberger physicians and scientists are teaming with them to realize this goal. Breast cancer experts, Channing Der, PhD and Jen Jen Yeh, MD and prostate cancer expert Young Whang, MD, PhD are collaborating on the grants.

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