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$8.1 million grant funds new center to research highly aggressive form of lung cancer

Jun. 8, 2018, 3:15 PM

Dr. Vito Quaranta

Vanderbilt University has been awarded a five-year, $8.1-million grant from the National Cancer Institute to serve as a research center in the institute’s prestigious Cancer Systems Biology Consortium.

Directed by Dr. Vito Quaranta, professor of biochemistry and pharmacology in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, the new center will focus on advancing the understanding and treatment of small cell lung cancer.

Small cell lung cancer is a highly aggressive, incurable tumor. The standard of care, based on a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy developed more than 50 years ago, remains largely ineffective.

The Vanderbilt center will combine experimentation with mathematical modeling, computation and machine learning to generate a comprehensive blueprint of the complex dynamics in small cell lung cancer that underlie treatment resistance. Hopefully, new treatment avenues will emerge.

“The knowledge accumulated on small cell lung cancer is extensive.” Quaranta said. “Yet there has been little advance, if any, in treatment for the past half-century. Our multidisciplinary, systems-level approach will break this logjam by looking into gene regulatory and cell–cell communication networks to neutralize strategies small cell lung cancer cells use to evade treatment.”

“The results of NCI’s CSBC are aimed at ultimately improving patient care,” said Jennifer A. Pietenpol, director of the NCI-designated, comprehensive Vanderbilt–Ingram Cancer Center, the Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology, and executive vice president for research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“We are thrilled to have Dr. Quaranta’s leadership of the transdisciplinary team and research efforts at Vanderbilt,” she said. “The diversity of interactions among the investigators engaged in this research will lead to new approaches to address small cell lung cancer treatment resistance.”

Lawrence Marnett, dean of basic sciences (Susan Urmy / Vanderbilt)

“This award is a reflection of the outstanding team that Vito has assembled and the quality of systems biology research at Vanderbilt,” added Lawrence J. Marnett, Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research and dean of basic sciences in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “They are leaders in cancer systems biology, so they have a great deal to offer to the NCI consortium. We are looking forward to the tremendous impact this integrated approach to cancer drug resistance will have.”

A special undertaking of the Vanderbilt center is the use of genetically engineered mouse models of small cell lung cancer maintained at Stanford University that facilitate in vivo experimental approaches.

Co-principal investigators in the center include Vanderbilt faculty members Carlos Lopez, assistant professor of biochemistry; Christine Lovly, assistant professor of medicine; and Alissa Weaver, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor and professor of cell and developmental biology. They will collaborate with Julien Sage, professor of pediatrics and genetics at Stanford.

Jonathan Irish and Ken Lau, both assistant professors of cell and developmental biology; Qi Liu, assistant professor of biostatistics; and Yu Shyr, Harold L. Moses Professor of Cancer Research and chair of the Department of Biostatistics, will run the center’s single-cell biology and data analysis shared research core.

Quaranta also directs the Quantitative Systems Biology Center at Vanderbilt, which supports cutting-edge interdisciplinary efforts melding mathematics, engineering, computation and biology.

Vanderbilt is one of 13 research institutions nationwide to be selected as a research center in the NCI Consortium. Others include Columbia, Harvard, Stanford and Yale universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The consortium brings together clinical and basic science cancer researchers with physician-scientists, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists to tackle key questions in cancer biology from a novel point of view.

“Cancer is a complex disease, and it challenges our traditional approaches, making it hard to predict tumor growth and drug response,” Daniel Gallahan, deputy director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Biology, said last month.

“Cancer systems biologists embrace that complexity and use many different types of data to build mathematical models that allow us to make predictions about whether a tumor will metastasize or what drug combinations will be effective,” he said.

In addition to cutting-edge cancer systems biology research, the consortium engages in outreach activities to disseminate systems approaches to other scientific communities and the public at large.

By Bill Snyder

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