UAMS Radiation Oncologist Awarded $1.86 Million National Cancer Institute Grant

By Susan Van Dusen

Fen Xia, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), received the grant for her project titled “The Novel Role of Sirtuin 2 in Regulation of Transcription-Associated DNA Damage Repair.”

“Platinum-based chemotherapy is commonly used alongside radiation therapy to treat several types of cancer. However, this treatment combination can cause permanent neurological damage, which presents a daunting challenge when treating cancer patients,” said Xia, who specializes in tumors of the central nervous system and see patients at the UAMS Radiation Oncology Center. The center offers the most advanced radiation therapy and is an integral part of the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

Platinum-based drugs have the chemical element platinum as part of their molecular structure. Irradiation and/or platinum-based chemotherapy is commonly used to treat head and neck cancers, ovarian cancer, cervical cancer, and colon and rectal cancer, among others. Head and neck cancers can include tumors in the mouth, nose, throat, sinuses and other areas in the head and neck.

Nerve damage caused by radiation and/or chemotherapy can include irreversible weakness, numbness and pain in the hands and feet, known as peripheral neuropathy.

Xia’s research examines possible ways to alleviate or prevent this damage from occurring, while maintaining the therapy’s effectiveness and improving the patients’ quality of life.

“We don’t fully understand the reason why some patients experience neurological damage due to this combination of cancer therapies, and, unfortunately, we lack drugs that selectively protect neuron survival without compromising their cancer-fighting ability,” said Xia, who also serves as director of the UAMS Radiation Oncology Residency Program.

Her preliminary study discovered a connection between the function of the protein Sirtuin 2 (SIRT2) with repair of DNA damage caused by radiation and/or platinum-based chemotherapy.

SIRT2 is involved in diverse cellular processes including metabolism, response to oxidative stress and tumor suppression.

“Our research goal is to better understand the biological role of SIRT2 and the molecular mechanisms that regulate the repair of damaged DNA caused by radiation and/or chemotherapy. If we can determine the different connection between DNA repair in cancer cells’ growth and normal neuronal cells’ survival, we may be able to find new ways to treat cancer and to spare patient from treatment caused toxicity, ” Xia said.

She expects the study to lay the foundation for future research investigating novel strategies to alleviate and/or prevent neurotoxicity in cancer patients who need radiation and chemotherapy.

UAMS is the state’s only health sciences university, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; a hospital; a main campus in Little Rock; a Northwest Arkansas regional campus in Fayetteville; a statewide network of regional campuses; and eight institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Psychiatric Research Institute, Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, Translational Research Institute, Institute for Digital Health & Innovation and the Institute for Community Health Innovation. UAMS includes UAMS Health, a statewide health system that encompasses all of UAMS’ clinical enterprise. UAMS is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. UAMS has 3,275 students, 890 medical residents and fellows, and five dental residents. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 12,000 employees, including 1,200 physicians who provide care to patients at UAMS, its regional campuses, Arkansas Children’s, the VA Medical Center and Baptist Health. Visit or Find us on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), YouTube or Instagram.