January 18, 2002

Meharry-VICC union producing real results

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From left to right are: Dr. Jacky Hayles, longtime co-worker, daughter Sarah Nurse, Dr. James Maller, key collaborator, daughter Emily Nurse, Sir Paul Nurse, and former postdoctoral fellows Dr. Chris Norbury, Dr. Kathy Gould, Dr. Pierre Thuriaux, and Dr. Sergio Moreno.

Meharry-VICC union producing real results

One of the goals of the partnership between Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center is to develop collaborative research projects that will lead to independent funding for Meharry scientists from the National Cancer Institute.

Drs. Josiah Ochieng and Lynn Matrisian are working hard to be the first team to reach that goal.

Ochieng and Matrisian discussed their work last weekend at an annual retreat for participants in the partnership, a component of the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance. Ochieng studies a protein called fetuin, which is produced in the liver. So far, no precise function is known for fetuin, but Ochieng has produced evidence that it may activate certain matrix metalloproteinases, enzymes studied in Matrisian’s lab that play a role in cancer cell metastasis.

“We had a very interesting problem to study, and we could do the in vitro studies in my lab,” said Ochieng, associate professor of Biochemistry at Meharry and a member of Vanderbilt-Ingram’s Breast Cancer Program. “But we had no experience with animal models at all. The help she has provided is tremendous. We have been able to generate sufficient preliminary data to apply for an RO1 (grant).”

For Matrisian, Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and chair of Cancer Biology at Vanderbilt, the collaboration “has allowed me to branch out into a new area of investigation, so it’s been mutually beneficial,” she said.

More than 100 investigators gathered in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Conference Center on Saturday to share data and information about research programs and core facilities. Several Meharry medical students also attended.

Fostering scientific collaboration, encouraging minority students to pursue cancer-related research or clinical careers, and enhancing care for cancer patients and accrual to clinical trials are all components of the partnership, which is funded by a $7.5 million grant awarded last year by the NCI. The grant is intended to support scientific, educational and clinical initiatives that combine the strengths of historically black medical schools like Meharry and NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers like Vanderbilt-Ingram.

Throughout the day’s presentations, evidence was abundant that the partnership is producing collaborations like the Ochieng-Matrisian project. Virtually every presenter of scientific data noted the involvement of investigators from both campuses.

Nassar Ahmed, Ph.D., assistant professor of Internal Medicine at Meharry said that the core resource he directs in epidemiology/biostatistics had long been a dream at Meharry. But, he said, it only became a reality through the Meharry-Vanderbilt partnership, the support of its principal investigators Dr. Samuel Adunyah of Meharry and Dr. Harold Moses of Vanderbilt-Ingram, and the resulting funding from the NCI.

Dr. Steve Stain, professor and chair of Surgery at Meharry, acknowledged the hard work and dedication of Dr. Emeka Ikpeazu, assistant professor of Medicine at Meharry, in the success thus far of the cancer clinical trials program at Meharry. Open just over a year, the program has 16 clinical trials open to cancer patients and has enrolled 11 percent of the 108 patients screened—well above the national average of less than 5 percent. “Dr. Ikpeazu is a product of Meharry,” Stain noted. However, Stain also acknowledged the contributions of Debbie Wujcik, the administrative coordinator, and Nancy McCullough, a clinical research specialist, both of whom joined the team from Vanderbilt-Ingram.

When the day of presentations and discussions ended, all agreed it was a Saturday well spent. “I hope this type of informal discussion will lead to more fruitful collaborations,” said Graham Carpenter, Ph.D., Ingram Professor of Cancer Research, professor of Biochemistry and associate director for Research Education at Vanderbilt-Ingram. “We’ve clearly made a lot of progress in the last year.”