November 9, 2007

VICC researchers make ASTRO splash

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VICC researchers make ASTRO splash

One of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center's newest training programs is gaining national recognition for its young researchers and faculty members.

At this year's American Society for Therapeutic Radiation and Oncology (ASTRO) conference in Los Angeles, 20 Vanderbilt-Ingram researchers were invited to give 22 presentations, including scientific papers and poster presentations about their cancer research. That puts the Radiation Oncology department among the top five programs nationally for this high level of visibility at the national meeting.

“We've recruited a large number of very motivated, bright trainees,” said Dennis Hallahan, M.D., chair of Radiation Oncology. “If you look at the bulk of the presentations, they're from graduate students, medical students, residents and fellows.”

The ASTRO presentations included studies about the effect of radiation dosage on normal tissue during adaptive radiotherapy for head and neck cancer, the safety and biological effects of COX-2 inhibitors when used alone or in conjunction with chemoradiation in rectal cancer and a novel nanoparticle drug delivery system for prostate cancer.

The department is gaining recognition for its focus on experimental therapeutics in cancer — the ability to identify new molecular cancer targets and proving that hitting those targets improves cancer treatment.

“Many of the drugs we're developing mimic ATP, which is a small molecule needed to power the chemical reactions that take place in a cell,” said Hallahan. “We're trying to fool a cancer cell into thinking it has ATP in its pocket when in fact it's a drug that's competing for ATP and preventing the enzyme from working.”

Setting up cancer cells to make them more susceptible to radiation is evidence of the department's focus on translational research that can be used in the clinic.

“We are patient advocates, so we look at drug development from a patient's perspective,” explained Hallahan. “We prioritize our projects based on that philosophy, so projects that are most likely to have an impact on cancer therapy are the projects that get the greatest amount of energy and resources.”

Bapsi Chakravarthy, M.D., director of the department's Residency Program, mentors the young researchers who are applying what they find in these laboratory projects to patient therapy.

"If scientific discoveries are to be applied to the treatment of patients, physicians trained to understand both the science of medicine as well as the care of patients need to be involved in the process,” Chakravarthy said.

“There is currently a great deal of concern among biomedical researchers over the future shortage of physician-scientists in the United States. If the residents from our training program are any indication of the future, we have nothing to be concerned about. They have proven to be both excellent clinicians as well as outstanding scientists."