Four UAMS Cancer Institute Scientists Receive Research Grants

By Susan Van Dusen

Presented annually since 2009, the Seeds of Science pilot grant awards assist cancer researchers in collecting data and developing projects that have the potential to result in future significant research findings.

“I was impressed with all of the proposals we received this year. They were all first rate and demonstrate the use of very sophisticated research approaches,” said Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., UAMS vice chancellor and director of the Cancer Institute.

Cancer Institute Deputy Director Alan Tackett, Ph.D., also noted the exceptional pool of applicants and the difficulty in selecting awardees.

“It was challenging to select only four grant recipients. I anticipate that our awardees will be highly successful in translating these pilots into major extramural funding in the near future,” Tackett said.

Seeds of Science online reception

About 60 people logged on to view the Seeds of Science grant awards presentation. Some of the awardees and speakers are pictured here during the Zoom program.

During the online event, each grant recipient presented a brief overview of their project.

One award, presented to Fen Xia, M.D., Ph.D., was made possible by proceeds from the 19th annual Village Walk for Cancer Research, hosted virtually in September 2020. Organized by volunteers in Hot Springs Village, the walk unites the community located one hour southwest of Little Rock in support of cancer research.

“The Village Walk for Cancer Research is instrumental in providing funds for these vital grants. We are so thankful to the dedicated volunteers who make this funding possible each year,” Birrer said.

Xia’s research focuses on determining the way in which the tumor microenvironment suppresses progression of the aggressive brain tumor glioblastoma (GBM) and enhances tumor response to treatment. The overarching goal of her study is to provide evidence supporting novel methods to suppress GBM tumor progression and enhance tumor response to radiation treatment, thereby sparing normal brain tissue from radiation treatment-induced damage.

Xia is professor and chair of the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology.

The additional three awards were funded by the Cancer Institute. Additional support is provided by the Envoys, a Cancer Institute advocacy group involved in raising money and selecting grant recipients.

All recipients are faculty in the UAMS College of Medicine:

  • Don Johann, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics and scientific director of the UAMS Genomics Facility

Johann’s research is focused on the development of a rapid, simple and inexpensive method for mutation testing of the non-small cell lung cancer biomarker gene panel and emerging targets for lung cancer that respond to targeted therapy.

  • Samrat Roy Choudhury, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics

Roy Choudhury seeks to determine how chromatin enhancers promote acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in patients harboring a specific and aggressive fusion oncogene CBFA2T3-GLIS2, which is nearly exclusively found in infants and young children with a 5-year survival rate of less than 20%. Defining the ways in which cancer gene specific enhancers regulate leukemic growth will assist in developing new therapies for high-risk infants with this type of AML.

  • Donghoon Yoon, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine

Yoon’s study proposes to develop and characterize multiple models that overcome the current limitations of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL), examine the biology of other DLBCL genetic backgrounds, and apply to patient-derived primary samples. Yoon’s research was presented by his co-investigator, Samantha Kendrick, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

The event also included brief presentations by the 2020 Seeds of Science recipients on how the grants propelled their research forward, including:

  • Analiz Rodriguez, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Neurosurgery;
  • Kimberly Stephens, Ph.D., MPH, RN, Department of Pediatrics;
  • Co-recipients Carolina Schinke, M.D., Department of Internal Medicine, and Michael Bauer, Ph.D., Department of Biomedical Informatics.