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Coffey lands major NCI award to support colorectal cancer research

Jun. 8, 2017, 9:28 AM

Vanderbilt’s Robert Coffey Jr., M.D., has received an Outstanding Investigator Award from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) — more than $6.6 million over seven years — to support studies aimed at advancing the diagnosis and treatment of colorectal cancer (CRC), a leading cancer killer.

Robert Coffey Jr., M.D.

Coffey, Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and professor of Medicine, is one of 27 researchers nationwide to receive Outstanding Investigator Awards in the second round of the NCI program.

Ian Macara, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, was among 62 researchers named in the first round of the program in 2015.

“With seven years of uninterrupted funding, NCI is providing investigators the opportunity to fully develop exceptional and ambitious cancer research programs,” Dinah Singer, Ph.D., director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Biology, said in a prepared statement.

Coffey said the award is an endorsement of two research initiatives he directs at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) — the Epithelial Biology Center (EBC) and the GI SPORE (Special Programs of Research Excellence).

The grant will enable him and his colleagues to continue developing novel approaches to study the role that the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) plays in the pathogenesis of many human cancers, including CRC.

For example, the researchers use unique genetically engineered fluorescent reporter mice to visualize EGFR in stem cell-driven models of colon cancer. They monitor tumor response to blocking the receptor by fluorescence colonoscopy, as well as by measuring tumor products found in circulating vesicles called exosomes.

A study published this week in JCI Insight describes the ability to analyze up to 60 proteins on a single tissue slide using multiplex immunofluorescence, a method Coffey’s lab developed with General Electric Healthcare. Postdoctoral fellow Eliot McKinley, Ph.D., is the paper’s first author.

In separate studies, the researchers have used a novel 3D culture system to discover how resistance to the anti-EGFR drug cetuximab can occur.

Thanks to the NCI grant, “we will harness the tools and resources at Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and the EBC and SPORE to advance this work,” Coffey said. The goal is to make these approaches available to other investigators at Vanderbilt.

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