Sharpless outlines achievements, new initiatives in 2016 State of the Cancer Center address

UNC Lineberger Director Norman Sharpless, MD, delivered the address as part of UNC Lineberger’s 2016 Annual Scientific Retreat, held Sept. 9 at the Carolina Club.

Sharpless outlines achievements, new initiatives in 2016 State of the Cancer Center address click to enlarge UNC Lineberger Director Norman Sharpless, MD, is the Wellcome Distinguished Professor in Cancer Research.

In an address to faculty, staff and trainees, UNC Lineberger Director Norman Sharpless, MD, highlighted the past year’s achievements and plans for future initiatives, including efforts to boost cancer prevention efforts in North Carolina and to help deliver cutting-edge technology to researchers.

The 2016 State of the Cancer Center address was part of UNC Lineberger’s 2016 Annual Scientific Retreat, held Sept. 9 at the Carolina Club. Sharpless highlighted faculty members’ research achievements, grant awards and professional honors. His remarks preceded research presentations by UNC Lineberger faculty and postdoctoral researchers and a juried poster presentation for trainees and students.

“It’s been an incredibly successful year,” said Sharpless, the Wellcome Distinguished Professor in Cancer Research. “We continued our research excellence, accrued substantial grants and awards - with some particularly impressive ones. Our recruitment has been so successful that we’re kind of out of space for the moment.”

Sharpless said faculty accomplishments were “too numerous to count,” but he proudly cited the faculty’s many publications in major journals and a substantial number of grants and awards. Notable achievements included the award of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Aziz Sancar, PhD, and the election of Keith Burridge, PhD, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The fiscal year was the best in UNC Lineberger’s history for fundraising, he said, with more than $29 million raised in gifts and new commitments from donors and awards from private foundations. In terms of federal grants, he expects cancer center members to have their best year ever. The year was also good for recruitment, with 25 new faculty members and retention of four.

In terms of federal grants, he expects cancer center members to have their best year ever. The year was also good for recruitment, with 25 new faculty members and retention of four.

Speaking to the success of the center’s clinical faculty, Sharpless highlighted U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of cancer care at UNC Hospitals as 16th in the country, and number one in North Carolina. He said the cancer program’s improvement in this ranking reflects significant long-term investments, including in Epic, UNC’s electronic medical records and information platform, improvements in patient safety, and other clinical infrastructure enhancements.

Looking toward the future, Sharpless said UNC Lineberger will work with the university to bring cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to UNC-Chapel Hill. Cryo-EM is the “next big thing” in structural biology, he said, and will enable researchers to get images of small molecules frozen in position at very low temperatures. The investment will allow the center to enhance its stake in a competitive landscape, he said, and will also help position the region as a structural biology powerhouse. Duke University and the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the Research Triangle Park plan to invest in cryo-EM as well.

He also described a new cancer surveillance and prevention program that will focus on North Carolina. In particular, UNC Lineberger will invest in efforts to better understand – and then ameliorate – high rates of cancer colon and breast cancer in North Carolina.

The center also took an important step forward with its immunotherapy program following the opening of a new Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility, which enables researchers to develop clinical T-cell immunotherapies. UNC Lineberger recruited two faculty members to help lead the clinical research program, which focuses on engineering patients’ own immune cells to attack their cancer, and recently opened two clinical trials.

“It’s really been a gigantic team effort across the university and the cancer center,” Sharpless said of the cellular immunotherapy program.

The retreat also included a scientific symposium with presentations by UNC Lineberger faculty and postdoctoral researchers.

Postdoctoral research associate M. Justin Byron, PhD, presented new findings from a study of public perception of cigarettes branded as “natural.” There are more than 7,000 chemicals in cigarettes and in cigarette smoke, including at least 72 carcinogens, Byron said. Many people think that the harmful chemicals are “additives,” leading them to incorrectly believe that “natural” cigarettes are safer.

“We think people might conflate ideas of additives with … harmful chemicals,” he said. “The aim of our project was to learn whether people hearing what the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke (were) increased their interest in natural-themed cigarettes.”

In a survey of adult smokers, they found that hearing about the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke increased interest in natural themed cigarettes.

“I think there should be public health messaging that harmful chemicals are in ‘natural’ cigarettes too,” Byron said.

Hazel Nichols, PhD, a UNC Lineberger member and an assistant professor in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, presented ongoing research into women’s reproductive health after cancer, and into pregnancy as a risk factor for breast cancer in younger women.

About 10 percent of breast cancer cases occur in women between the ages of 20 and 44 years, Nichols said, which is also the typical reproductive age range. While the group represents a minority of breast cancer cases overall, it’s a growing and important group, she said. It’s also an age group that’s increasingly of interest as more women delay child birth.

Nichols described work looking at breast cancer risk following a woman’s first birth. There is evidence of a short-term increase in breast cancer risk after childbirth, she said, and the increase may be larger for women who start having children at older ages.

In another project, Nichols is investigating birth outcomes in women who have had a child after receiving a cancer diagnosis compared to birth outcomes for women who have not had cancer. In their early data, Nichols said they’ve seen a three-fold higher prevalence of pre-term birth in women diagnosed with cancer during pregnancy, and a 1.4-fold higher prevalence in women who conceive after their cancer diagnosis.

The symposium also included presentations from Ben Vincent, MD, on “Immuno-PET imaging of tumor-infiltrating T-cells in immune competent mice,” Pengda Liu, PhD, on “Mechanistic insights to target cancer signaling pathways for cancer therapy,” and Gaorav Gupta, MD, PhD, on “DNA Damage responses and chromosomal instability in breast preneoplasia.” Laura Bowers, PhD, gave a presentation on “The anti-inflammatory drug sulindac decreases basal-like mammary tumor burden in obese mice,” Rajarshi Choudhury, PhD, presented “An oncogene-driven negative feedback loop controlling cell proliferation;” Jose Zevallos, MD, MPH, spoke about the “Molecular profile of HPV-positive oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma stratified by smoking status,” and Jill Dowen, PhD, gave a presentation on “Three-dimensional genome organization directs cell identity.”

There was a juried poster presentation session following the symposium, with cash prizes awarded to the top speaker and posters in the categories of basic, clinical/translational and population sciences.