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Wistar Researchers Receive $1.5 Million CURE Grant to Pilot Cancer Research Projects

Today, Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Michael Wolf presented nearly $1.5 million in grants to The Wistar Institute to help launch cancer research projects ranging from improving melanoma therapy to changing the way we understand human genetics.

The Commonwealth Universal Research Enhancement (CURE) Program funds grants for health research with the purpose of discovering new scientific knowledge to help improve the health of all Pennsylvanians.

“Over the years, CURE grants have led to amazing medical advancements and new scientific breakthroughs in treating diseases and health conditions. This year’s projects are no different,” Wolf said. “The Department of Health is proud to fund such bold and innovative research projects.”

These grants, allocated in the 2012-13 fiscal year, focus on specific research priorities established and reviewed by the Department of Health in conjunction with the Health Research Advisory Committee, a panel made up of universities and research institutes.

“Since the program began, Wistar researchers have made exceptional use of CURE funding to kick start vital research initiatives that will profoundly affect the future of medicine,” said Wistar President and CEO Russel E. Kaufman, M.D. “This year is no exception, and we see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a critical partner in our efforts to advance medical science and further Pennsylvania's reputation as a global leader in biomedicine.”

The CURE program was established in 2001 with funds from the landmark Tobacco Settlement Fund. By law, the grants must focus on clinical, health services, and/or biomedical research, with a goal of improving health status and access. Thirty percent of CURE funding goes to competitive research grants, such as the one described here, while seventy percent go to so-called formula grants, based on how much an institution receives in research funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Below are brief descriptions of the projects that will be supported through the grant to The Wistar Institute:

• Informatics Solutions for NextGen Sequence Data Analysis

Principal Investigator: Ramana Davuluri, Ph.D.

Studies of the human genome suggest that at least half of our genes are responsible for multiple versions of individual protein—called isoforms—each with its own unique role. Many of these protein isoforms are directly involved in the ability of cancer cells to thrive. The Davuluri laboratory will use this funding to develop new computational tools to untangle vast amounts of complex genetic data in order to identify these isoforms and how they are regulated in both normal and cancerous cells

Regulation of Immune Responses in Multiple Myeloma Bone Marrow Microenvironment

Principal Investigator: Yulia Nefedova, M.D., Ph.D.

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells, a type of blood cell that produces antibodies. With this funding, the Nefedova laboratory seeks to develop a strategy aimed to improve anti-tumor immune responses by targeting immature myeloid cells of the bone marrow, which contribute to the disease’s progression.

• Molecular Basis of BRCA1 and PALB2 Tumor Suppression:

Principal Investigator: Ramin Sheikhattar, Ph.D.

The long-term goal of the Sheikhattar laboratory is to provide molecular-level detail on the function BRCA1 and PALB2—genes that are lost or mutated in many breast and ovarian cancers—in order to develop new therapies against these diseases. Shiekhattar postulates that, since these genes are responsible for how cells receive outside signals, their inactivation means these breast and ovarian cancer cells do not “hear” the messages that should inhibit their growth.

• Analysis of Markers of Progression and Therapy Resistance in Melanoma

Principal Investigator: Ashani T. Weeraratna, Ph.D.

Melanoma is an aggressive disease for which there is a universally poor prognosis. Weeraratna has discovered that a protein called Wnt5A can mark the point at which melanoma cells become metastatic—spreading throughout the body—as well as resistant to anti-melanoma drug therapies. With CURE funding, her laboratory will test whether blocking Wnt5A’s signaling pathway can help overcome drug resistance.

• Developing Rational Strategies for Therapeutic Targeting of NRAS-Mutant Melanomas

Principal Investigator: Jessie Villanueva, Ph.D.

Nearly 25 percent of melanoma cases are marked by mutations in the NRAS gene. In a disease that is already highly deadly, tumors with NRAS mutations are extremely aggressive and are among the most difficult tumors to treat, with no effective therapies available. Drugs that target NRAS itself have been unsuccessful, so the Villanueva lab is searching for the key proteins that enable NRAS mutant melanomas to survive.

The Wistar Institute is an international leader in biomedical research with special expertise in cancer research and vaccine development. Founded in 1892 as the first independent nonprofit biomedical research institute in the country, Wistar has long held the prestigious Cancer Center designation from the National Cancer Institute. The Institute works actively to ensure that research advances move from the laboratory to the clinic as quickly as possible. The Wistar Institute: Today’s Discoveries – Tomorrow’s Cures. On the Web at

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