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News Around the Cancer Center

May 30, 2017

21st Century Cures Act supports cancer research

Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, along with patients, physicians and scientists agree on one urgent priority—the need to accelerate the pace of scientific discovery to address a range of serious and costly illnesses, from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease.

In a spirit of harmony and far-reaching vision, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law Dec. 13, 2016. The bill commits $6.3 billion over seven years to support research initiatives for a variety of illnesses. The goal is to make a decade’s worth of progress in half that time.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) and Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) faculty and staff are already engaged in some of the innovative research projects supported by the new measure.

The legislation provides an additional $4.8 billion to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including: $1.8 billion to support former Vice President Joe Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot” to speed cancer research; $1.4 billion for the Precision Medicine Initiative to explore the genetic, environmental and lifestyle variables that cause or accelerate diseases; and $1.6 billion for the BRAIN Initiative to improve understanding of diseases like Alzheimer’s or mental illness and to speed diagnosis and treatment.

Standing alongside former President Barack Obama during the signing ceremony was U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who called the law a “Christmas Medical Miracle.” In his role as chairman of the Senate’s Health committee, Senator Alexander worked on the legislation for two years prior to passage.

“This bipartisan law will help us take advantage of the breathtaking advances in biomedical research and bring those innovations to doctors’ offices and patients’ medicine cabinets in Tennessee,” Alexander said.

The 21st Century Cures Act includes measures to streamline the approval process by the Food and Drug Administration for new drugs and medical devices so they reach consumers more quickly and at a reduced cost.

The legislation also provides $1 billion in grants to states to address the opioid crisis and improves the implementation and use of electronic health records.

Several VICC leaders have been deeply involved with the Cancer Moonshot project. Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology, Executive Vice President for Research at VUMC and director of VICC, is among 28 members of a Blue Ribbon Panel (BRP) that recommended several approaches to accelerate cancer prevention efforts and scientific discovery.

“Our mandate was to consider the universe of bold possibilities, then to think broadly and strategically about the approaches that were likely to produce meaningful and tangible progress in an accelerated time frame of five years,” said Pietenpol.

Scott Hiebert, Ph.D., Hortense B. Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and associate director of Basic Research and of Shared Resources at VICC, who was appointed by President Obama to serve on the National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB), voted in favor of the recommendations.

Mia Levy, M.D., Ph.D., Ingram Assistant Professor of Cancer Research and director of Cancer Health Informatics and Strategy, served on the BRP Enhanced Data Sharing Working Group.

Daniel Liebler, Ph.D., Ingram Professor of Cancer Research, served on the BRP Tumor Evolution and Progression Working Group.

– by Dagny Stuart

Rodriguez named associate nursing officer

Forward is the only direction in which Anna Rodriguez likes to travel. Rodriguez, who holds a BSN, a Master of Science in Nursing and a Master of Health Administration, is leading the oncology nursing enterprise as Associate Nursing Officer at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC), having replaced Carol Eck, who spent more than 30 years in nursing leadership at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC).

Oncology is the specialty that touches Rodriguez’s heart and drew her to Nashville.

“I have many relatives with breast cancer. My mom passed away of breast cancer a year ago. There is just that personal experience. I understand what families are going through and want to make sure that someone helps them.”

In addition to the medical care, “there’s the psychosocial aspect of the patient’s care where we need to address psychological, social and financial needs.”

Born and raised in the Philippines, Rodriguez moved to the United States after college to work in a Chicago nursing home but soon decided to explore wider horizons in health care.

“I knew early in my career that I wanted to be in nursing management, so I was very strategic about the career opportunities I took,” Rodriguez said.

She spent eight years at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, an academic medical center, starting as a staff nurse and moving up to patient care manager. Then she accepted a post as director of Oncology at Chicago’s Mount Sinai Hospital, an urban critical access hospital serving less affluent patients.

In her next post at Presence Resurrection Medical Center, she served as director of Oncology, Women’s and Children’s programs, Rehabilitation Services and Pain Center.

Rodriguez was excited about the opportunity to return to an academic medical center and a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center like VICC.

“I’m really humbled by the opportunity to work alongside our world-renowned scientists and faculty. It is a great honor,” Rodriguez said.

– by Dagny Stuart

VA honors Richmond’s scientific contributions

Vanderbilt University cancer researcher Ann Richmond, Ph.D., has won the 2016 William S. Middleton Award, the highest honor for scientific achievement bestowed by the Biomedical Laboratory Research and Development Service of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Richmond is Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and professor of Cancer Biology and Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and Senior Associate Career Scientist with the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, Nashville campus, located adjacent to Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC).

She was honored for significant contributions to understanding “chemokines,” inflammatory proteins that can regulate tumor growth. Her research has helped lay the foundation for understanding how to improve the effectiveness of immunotherapies against melanoma, a potentially lethal skin cancer that occurs disproportionately among Gulf War veterans.

“It’s a wonderful honor to have our work recognized,” Richmond said. “I’ve been associated with the VA since 1983, and they’ve been a major contributor to our research, along with the NIH (National Institutes of Health), for more than 30 years.”

Richmond was nominated for the award by Donald Rubin, M.D., Associate Chief of Staff for Research at the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System’s Nashville campus, and professor of Medicine and of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology at Vanderbilt.

She is the third woman and second Vanderbilt faculty member to receive the annual award, which was created in 1960.

– Bill Snyder

VICC joins cancer genomic data sharing initiative

Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) has joined an international consortium of leading cancer centers to share genomic data from patients in an effort to accelerate the pace of cancer research and improve precision medicine.

That consortium has now released 19,000 de-identified genomic and partial clinical records collected from patients who were treated at eight international institutions including VICC, making it among the largest fully public cancer genomic data sets released to date.

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) launched the AACR Project Genomics Evidence Neoplasia Information Exchange (GENIE) to facilitate data sharing among major cancer centers and researchers. The data set of 19,000 genomic records includes data for 59 major cancer types, including data on nearly 3,000 patients with lung cancer, more than 2,000 patients with breast cancer and more than 2,000 patients with colorectal cancer.

VICC’s participation in AACR Project GENIE has been spearheaded by Mia Levy, M.D., Ph.D., Ingram Assistant Professor of Cancer Research and director of Cancer Health Informatics and Strategy.

“As physicians we are all generating massive amounts of data about patients and the genetic mutations in their tumors, along with patient response to medications and other treatments. But much of that data is kept in silos and has not been shared. AACR Project GENIE is one of the first efforts to make some of this data available for cancer researchers so that we can accelerate the pace of discovery,” Levy said.

Enhanced data sharing is also one of the goals of the White House Cancer Moonshot initiative. Levy served on the Blue Ribbon Panel Enhanced Data Sharing Working Group for the Cancer Moonshot.

“Other industries are well ahead of health care when it comes to managing and sharing data, and the health care industry is just at the dawning of this new era of data fluency,” Levy said.

The newly released data are fully de-identified in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). They are derived from patients whose tumors were genetically sequenced as part of their care at one of the eight institutions that participated in the first phase of AACR Project GENIE. The genomic data are clinical grade, which means they are the highest quality possible.

By releasing the data to the global cancer research community, the consortium aims to spur new clinical research that will accelerate the pace of progress against cancer.

– Dagny Stuart

V Foundation grants bolster cancer research

Two Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) investigators have earned grant awards from The V Foundation for Cancer Research, continuing the foundation’s support for innovative cancer research initiatives at VICC.

Raymond Blind, Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine, Biochemistry and Pharmacology, has received a two-year V Foundation grant to examine how proteins induce cancerous tumors to grow.

Blind’s research is focused on several types of cancer, including liver cancer. While cancer rates for many types of cancer are falling, the incidence of liver and endometrial cancer among African-Americans and Hispanics continues to rise.

Blind’s laboratory recently discovered that “an enzyme controls organ growth by placing a ‘molecular barcode’” on the DNA. Under healthy conditions, this barcode is only present when an organ is supposed to grow. But in cancer the barcode is always present, commanding it to grow into a tumor.

The next step is to try to identify these barcodes in mouse liver tumors. The research could enable the development of new therapies for liver cancer patients and provide a way for physicians to determine which drugs might work best for individual patients.

Justin Balko, Ph.D., Pharm.D., assistant professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology and leader of Molecular Oncology in the Center for Cancer Targeted Therapies, has been awarded a two-year grant to determine what makes some cancer therapies, especially new immunotherapies, more effective against the disease.

Most types of cancer that respond to immunotherapies tend to have high numbers of gene mutations or DNA changes.

“Mutations sometimes cause changes that make the tumor cell look like it has been infected by a virus or bacteria. This makes the immune system attack the tumor, just as it would attack a cold or another infection. Patients whose tumors have more mutations often have better outcomes, probably because they trigger the immune system to start attacking the cancer,” Balko said.

Unfortunately, cancer types with fewer mutations may not respond as well to immunotherapies.

Balko’s laboratory will investigate whether specific combinations of therapies will help make immunotherapies more effective against these low-mutation tumors.

The V Foundation for Cancer Research was formed in 1993 by ESPN and Jim Valvano, a former NCAA National Championship basketball coach and sports commentator. “Coach V” died that same year at 46 from an aggressive form of cancer.

Since that time, The V Foundation has awarded more than $150 million to more than 120 facilities nationwide and awards all direct cash donations to cancer research and related programs.

– by Dagny Stuart

Moses recognized for innovation

Harold (Hal) Moses, M.D., Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and director emeritus of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC), has been named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). Moses, professor and interim chair of Cancer Biology, is among 175 academic leaders named to the 2016 class of NAI Fellows.

Election to NAI Fellow status is a professional distinction awarded to academic leaders who have demonstrated a “spirit of innovation” in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible positive impact on society.

Moses has devoted much of his career to basic research on growth factors and tumor suppressor genes. He and his colleagues were among the first to isolate and purify transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β) and discovered that it could inhibit cell proliferation. This work had a major impact on scientists’ understanding of the disruption in the balance between positive and negative growth regulators as an underlying cause of cancer.

Moses, who helped launch VICC and led it to National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center status, has received many awards for his research, including the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research Award, and he is an elected fellow of the American Association for Cancer Research Academy.

– Dagny Stuart