Scientific retreat highlights faculty research, cancer center initiatives

During the annual UNC Lineberger Scientific Retreat on Oct. 10, Interim Director Shelton "Shelley" Earp shared his assessment of current and future research initiatives. Eight center researchers gave presentations on their work, and a poster competition highlighted the work of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.

Scientific retreat highlights faculty research, cancer center initiatives click to enlarge terim Director Shelton “Shelley” Earp, MD, spoke at the annual retreat.
Scientific retreat highlights faculty research, cancer center initiatives click to enlarge Lindsay West, MD, speaks to UNC Lineberger’s Lawrence Marks, MD, chair of the UNC School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology, and the Dr. Sidney K. Simon Distinguished Professor of Oncology Research, during the retreat poster competition.

Speaking to nearly 200 UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers and physicians on Tuesday, Interim Director Shelton “Shelley” Earp, MD, ended his review of the cancer center’s statewide impact by relaying that immunotherapy is emerging as one of the foundational elements of cancer care along with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. He also praised the center’s researchers and their race to develop new immunotherapy solutions for hard-to-treat tumors.

Earp shared his assessment of current and future research initiatives at UNC Lineberger in his State of the Cancer Center address during the annual UNC Lineberger Scientific Retreat at The Carolina Club. Eight faculty members also presented talks that covered a range of topics, from cellular therapy, to a proposed functional MRI study to assess the “chemo brain” phenomenon, to the use of engineered “sticky” nanoparticles to improve immunotherapy drug responses.

UNC Lineberger continued its history of research excellence during the past fiscal year, Earp said. Faculty published approximately 1,700 cancer-relevant papers, and faculty grants and awards were “too numerous” to count. National Cancer Institute funding remained level at $68 million placing the cancer center in a top 10 position nationally. UNC Lineberger had a strong year for recruitment and private fundraising, with a total of $29 million in donations and private grants. However, there was “one bad administration screw-up,” Earp noted. “The NCI stole our director.”

Earp emphasized the impact of the University Cancer Research Fund, an investment made by the state of North Carolina to, among other things, promote innovation and faculty recruitment, invest in infrastructure development and support research that improves cancer outcomes. Last year, UNC Lineberger leveraged $44.7 million in UCRF support to yield an economic impact of over $406.7 million for the state in addition to helping the center to recruit and retain highly sought-after faculty.

In terms of clinical care, Earp said the N.C. Cancer Hospital, as a state institution, is committed to all of the state’s citizens who have cancer and that it must excel in every clinical area to be able to provide comprehensive cancer care for the state’s residents. However, he said UNC Lineberger must focus research on certain cancers where it is poised to make a national impact. One emerging area is pancreatic cancer, which the 12th most common form of cancer in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute, but it’s expected to be the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the country by 2030.

“(Pancreatic cancer) is extraordinarily resistant to chemotherapy, to targeted (treatments), and even to current immunotherapy approaches,” Earp said, who also highlighted research efforts by UNC Lineberger members to improve treatment for the disease. One project to develop a device to direct new drugs to pancreatic tumors using electric fields won a $2.2 million commercialization award. There is also a clinical trial being developed to test a new treatment strategy based on discoveries for molecular pathways driving the disease that were made in UNC Lineberger laboratories. 

Earp said UNC Lineberger’s population scientists have projects that touch nearly all 100 counties. “It’s easy to say we’re here to take care of North Carolina,” he said.

UNC Lineberger researchers are working to tackle disparities in cancer death through a number of research programs, Earp said. He added, however, that disparities in mortality between whites and African Americans in multiple myeloma and prostate cancer in particular made it quite clear that much more needs to be done to close the outcomes gap.

In terms of new immunotherapy research, he discussed initiatives to advance personalized immunotherapy treatments, as well as to develop new immunotherapy treatments to reach solid-tumors. Barbara Savoldo, MD, PhD, UNC Lineberger member, professor and assistant director of the center’s immunotherapy program, spoke at the retreat on current and planned clinical trials that use chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, or CAR T-cells, to fight cancer. “It’s no (longer) science fiction; it’s real,” Savoldo said.

The retreat also included a postdoctoral fellows and graduate students poster competition. The winners of the poster competition were:

Basic Science

Anthony Arceci, graduate student, UNC Curriculum in Genetics and Molecular Biology   

“FoxM1 Deubiquitination by USP21 Attenuates Cancer Cell Growth and Chemotherapy Resistance”       

Mentor: Michael Emanuele, PhD

Courtney Schaal, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, Center for Integrative Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery

“The use of a high throughput screen to identify compounds that alter chromatin accessibility in cancer”           

Mentor: Samantha Pattenden, PhD, and Ian Davis, MD, PhD

Justin English, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, pharmacology     

“Viral Evolution of Genetically Actuating Sequences”          

Mentor: Bryan Roth, PhD

Translational Science

Eben Lichtman, MD, fellow, UNC School of Medicine Division of Hematology/Oncology

“Pre-Clinical Evaluation of B7H3-Specific Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cells for the Treatment of Acute Myeloid Leukemia”   

Mentor: Gianpietro Dotti, MD

Emily Cousins, PhD, postdoctoral fellow      

“Competitive Kinase Enrichment Proteomics Reveals that Abemaciclib Inhibits Glycogen Synthase Kinase 3 Beta and Activates WNT Signaling”   

Mentor: Ben Major, PhD

Craig Goodwin, PhD, postdoctoral fellow

“Application of a CRISPR/Cas9 genetic loss-of-function screen to identify novel therapeutic strategies and resistance mechanisms to CDK4/6 inhibitors in pancreatic cancer”

Mentor: Channing Der, PhD

Population Science

Jennifer Spencer, graduate student, health policy and management         

“Quality of Life Trajectories in Breast Cancer Patients Experiencing Financial Toxicity”     

Mentor: Stephanie Wheeler, PhD

Andrew Seidenberg, graduate student, health behavior     

“Biases in the published research on MRTPs: A bibliometric analysis”

Mentor: Kurt Ribisl, PhD

Sophie Mayer, graduate student, epidemiology      

“Treatment delay in black and white women in the Carolina Breast Cancer Study”

Mentor: Melissa Troester, PhD

Clinical Research

Soha Bazyar, graduate student, biomedical engineering     

“Efficacy of Combined Microbeam Radiotherapy and Immunotherapy on Melanoma”     

Mentor: Yueh Z. Lee

Aaron Piepmeier, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, Program on Integrative Medicine                    

“Feasibility of an 8-week Tai Chi Chuan Intervention for Breast Cancer Survivors” 

Mentor: Gary Asher, MD, MPH

Lindsay West, MD, fellow, gynecologic oncology     

“From Fat to Fit: Diet switch reverses obesity-driven upregulation of lipid biosynthesis in endometrial cancer”          

Mentor: Victoria Bae-Jump, MD, PhD