Even as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center scientists continued to draw support for their innovative research proposals, garnering more than $34 million in competitive grants from government agencies and private funders. These recent grants fund efforts to improve outcomes for patients with some of the most challenging cancer types — including triple-negative breast cancer, pancreatic cancer and head and neck cancers — and to advance what we know about the impact of COVID-19 in cancer patients.

“The scope and significance of the research being conducted right here at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center cannot be understated,” says Congressman Brian Higgins, co-chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Cancer Caucus. “The federal government invests in promising science and scientists. The magnitude of these grants represents a confidence in the work Roswell Park does and the hope Roswell Park’s discovery brings to families confronting COVID and cancer.”

Seven research teams earned multimillion-dollar awards for their proposals:

• Mukund Seshadri, PhD, DDS, Professor of Oncology and Director of Roswell Park’s Center for Oral Oncology, earned three grants totaling more than $5 million in new funds: a five-year, $2.9 million Research Project (R01) award from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) for developing novel combination treatment strategies for head and neck cancer; a $2 million grant from the Office of the Director within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the acquisition of an ultra-high-field 7T magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner dedicated for cancer research; and $252,000 in fast-track funding from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) supporting an investigation into the impact of COVID-19 on oral health care delivery in cancer patients and survivors.

“Developing new therapies that are both safe and effective for patients with head and neck cancers is a critical priority,” says Dr. Seshadri. “Many patients present with advanced disease and have limited treatment options, and we’re hoping to change that with a broad-based research program exploring opportunities to improve patients’ outcomes. You see that same intensive effort across Roswell Park, with researchers from every discipline, department and level contributing new ideas for addressing the most pressing challenges in oncology.”

• Sharon Evans, PhD, and Scott Abrams, PhD, Professors of Oncology in the Department of Immunology, received a five-year, $3.5 million R01 grant from the NCI to investigate the role that circulating myeloid cell (CMC) clusters have on anti-tumor immunity. Based on their discovery that myeloid cells interact with anti-cancer immune cells directly within the blood, forming previously unrecognized clusters, the team will explore whether CMC clusters have the capacity to suppress the immune system and could serve as a blood-based biomarker for solid-tumor cancers. Their work may help guide treatment decisions for patients with tumors including breast cancer and melanoma.

• Joseph Lau, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Oncology in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, received a five-year, $3.23 million grant from Versiti Wisconsin Inc. and the NIH for research on glycans, carbohydrates on cell surfaces within the bone marrow that play a signaling role in blood cell production. His work aims to study how failure in glycan signaling contributes to bone-marrow diseases such as myelodysplastic syndrome and myeloproliferative neoplasms, and will also look at how blood-cell production can be re-established after bone marrow transplantation.

• Gyorgy Paragh, MD, PhD, Chair of Dermatology, and Lei Wei, PhD, Associate Professor of Oncology in the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics, received a five-year, $3.09 million R01 grant from the NCI for an effort to improve skin cancer prevention through early detection of UV-induced clonogenic mutations — a project that stems from work by a multidisciplinary team of Roswell Park researchers showing that ultra-deep sequencing of skin DNA samples can be used to identify skin damage before the appearance of visible skin changes.

• Gokul Das, PhD, Associate Professor of Oncology in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, received a five-year, $2.95 million R01 grant from the NCI for “Functional significance of individual P53 mutations in determining the role of estrogen receptor beta in triple-negative breast cancer.”

• Scott Olejniczak, PhD, Assistant Professor of Oncology in the Department of Immunology, received a five-year, $2.6 million R01 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for a project that seeks to understand mechanisms and consequences of T-cell co-receptor-regulated RNA maturation. The goal of this project is to identify molecular mechanisms that determine how immune cells respond to cancer immunotherapy, with the hope of identifying new therapeutic targets that can enhance patient responses. Dr. Olejniczak also received a two-year, $175,000 R03 pilot grant from the NCI to extend aspects of this project into engineered CAR T cells.

• Yuesheng Zhang, MD, PhD, Professor of Oncology in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, received a five-year, $2,451,574 R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute for his research which will evaluate a recombinant human protein for its ability to overcome drug resistance in HER2-positive breast cancer.

Other recent Roswell Park grantees and their projects:

Anna Bianchi-Smiraglia, PhD, Assistant Professor of Oncology in the Department of Cell Stress Biology, received a five-year, $1.93 million grant from the NCI for work to identify novel metabolic vulnerabilities that may be leveraged therapeutically to suppress the invasiveness and spread of triple-negative breast cancer.

Saraswati Pokharel, MD, PhD, Co-Chief of Pathology and Director of Thoracic Pathology, received a five-year, $1.85 million R01 grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) for the project “Inhibition of radiation-induced coronary microvascular disease.”

Subhamoy Dasgupta, PhD, Associate Professor of Oncology in the Department of Cell Stress Biology, received a five-year, $1.82 million R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute for “Mechanisms of metabolic stress induced transcriptional regulation in prostate cancer.”

Qiang Li, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Oncology in the Department of Urology, received an NCI Research Career Development Award of $1.43 million over five years to study the impact of mutations in the RB1 gene in bladder cancer progression, metastasis and response to chemotherapy.

Dr. Abrams and Michael Nemeth, PhD, Assistant Professor of Oncology in the Department of Immunology, received a three-year, $1.33 million award from the Department of Defense for “Inhibiting MDSC biogenesis to augment immunotherapy efficacy in triple negative breast cancer.”

Christine Ambrosone, PhD, Roswell Park Alliance Foundation Endowed Chair in Cancer Prevention and Senior Vice President of Population Sciences, received a five-year, $829,867 grant from the University of Florida and the NCI for “Energy balance, MTOR pathway signaling and breast cancer prognosis.”

Jason Muhitch, PhD, Assistant Professor of Oncology in the Department of Immunology, received a two-year, $672,800 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. His project, “Exploiting radiation-induced immune recognition of renal cell carcinoma,” aims to determine whether radiation therapy sensitizes kidney cancer cells to tumor-specific immune responses.

Eric Kauffman, MD, Assistant Professor of Oncology in the Department of Urology, received a two-year, $669,423 grant from the Department of Defense for “Characterization of novel critical interplay between VHL inactivation and iron metabolism in clear cell renal cell carcinoma.”

Fengzhi Li, PhD, Associate Professor of Oncology in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, received a two-year, $500,000 grant from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network for research to identify the potential FL118 biomarker as a basis for future clinical trials and targeted pancreatic cancer therapy.

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