University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center researcher Albert S. Baldwin has received a prestigious grant from the National Cancer Institute to support research considered to have breakthrough potential.
Baldwin, UNC Lineberger’s associate director of basic research and the William Rand Kenan Professor of Biology at UNC, will receive nearly $5.9 million across seven years to study a cell signaling pathway called NF-kappaB that becomes dysregulated in many cancers. Baldwin is the second UNC Lineberger researcher to receive the NCI Outstanding Investigator Award. NCI designated its first class of award recipients in 2015.
“This grant gives us the freedom to take risks and to test innovative ideas that we probably wouldn’t have had the time or the funding to be able to do otherwise,” Baldwin said. “We are working to understand how NF-kappaB becomes activated by oncoproteins and by the loss of tumor suppressors, and how we can block its cancer-driving signaling with new drug approaches.”
Baldwin received his doctoral degree in biology from the University of Virginia in 1984. He went on to study gene expression as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the mentorship of Nobel Prize winner Phillip A. Sharp.
It was in Sharp’s laboratory that he began studying NF-kappaB, a transcription factor discovered at MIT in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate David Baltimore. Baldwin started his 27-year career at UNC in 1989. During that time, he has made significant contributions to the understanding of signaling pathways associated with NF-kappaB and to its role in both normal and cancer cells.
Normally, NF-kappaB plays an important role in immune cells to help them fight infection. In these cells, NF-kappaB promotes cell proliferation, survival and invasion to sites of infection. While those properties are critical in immune cells, those same functions are turned on abnormally to drive cancer cell growth.
“This pathway that does good things in an inflammatory cell to help the body fight disease gets co-opted to drive cancer,” Baldwin said. “In a normal immune cell, these functions become activated in response to infection, and then they’ll be turned off by a natural feedback process. The cancer cell is locked into this survival, proliferation and invasion program and can’t turn it off.”
“This grant gives us the freedom to take risks and to test innovative ideas that we probably wouldn’t have had the time or the funding to be able to do otherwise”
Baldwin’s lab at UNC Lineberger will be working to understand how cancer-driving oncoproteins activate NF-kappaB, to understand the role of NF-kappaB to promote metastasis and drive resistance to therapy, and to address other keys questions relating to cancer promotion. The goal is to develop novel therapies targeting the NF-kappaB pathway in cancer and inflammatory diseases.
Baldwin was one of two UNC Lineberger researchers to receive the NCI Outstanding Investigator award. Stephen Hursting, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the UNC Nutrition Research Institute received a seven year award of $5.3 million for research that aims to break the link between obesity and cancer. Hursting’s award was announced last year.