NIH Funding Supports Junior Faculty

November 19, 2004

Heather Heilman
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Most cancers are, at root, caused by genetic mutations, and about 10 percent of cancer is caused by a single inherited mutation.

grantA new $10.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will allow Tulane to develop a program in cancer genetics, helping to better understand the genetic mechanisms underlying cancer and find ways to interrupt those processes.

The funding will establish a new Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) in Cancer Genetics. COBRE grants are intended to develop an area of research strength, largely by nurturing the work of young, emerging researchers.

The grant was given to the Tulane Cancer Center, but the existence of the Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium, which brings together researchers from Tulane and Louisiana State University, was one of the major factors that impressed the NIH and brought the highly competitive grant to New Orleans.

Some of the grant money will be subcontracted to LSU. Five junior faculty members at a time will receive support through the grant.

As each researcher secures his or her own independent NIH funding, room will be made for new researchers to take part in the COBRE grant. Initially, three researchers from Tulane and two from LSU have been funded.

Astrid Engel, assistant professor of epidemiology, is exactly the kind of researcher the grant was designed to support. She's just beginning as an independent investigator. She studies the ways in which heavy metals like cadmium, nickel and mercury can inhibit normal DNA repair in cells and contribute to genetic instability.

These elements have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, but scientists are only beginning to understand the mechanisms that cause these effects. Engel did her postdoctorate work under Prescott Deininger, professor of epidemiology and principal investigator on the grant. She'll get two new mentors through the COBRE grant who will help her with the science and with the art of grant-writing.

"As a grad student and postdoc, you get a lot of training in science, but you don't learn about how to sell what you want to do," she said. "It's difficult to realize it's like a sales pitch--you have to convince other people that your work is important and get them as excited about it as you are."

Aline Scandurro, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, values the support she'll be receiving through the COBRE grant because it will help connect her with other scientists.

"To me, the COBRE is wonderful because it provides a platform to collaborate with other people," she said. "As investigators, we're kind of put in the lab and we don't have too much interaction with people outside of it--especially if you're a mother of three like me."

Scandurro is not a newcomer-- she's been at Tulane for 10 years and has had a grant from the National Cancer Institute, but has never had a coveted RO1, or individual investigator, grant. She's studying the genes that help regulate the intake of oxygen into the cell. That process could be important to cancer treatment, because if you could cut off oxygen to cancer cells you could suffocate the tumor.

She thinks grants like this one, which encourage collaboration between Tulane and LSU, help attract a critical mass of researchers to the area, allowing Louisiana to grow into a major research center. With the establishment of a center in cancer genetics, investigators from both schools who do related research will be getting together for regular meetings to discuss their work.

Chuck Hemenway, associate professor of pediatrics, also is receiving funding from the grant, although he doesn't expect he will be for long. Since the COBRE grant was announced, he has learned that he won a coveted RO1 grant from the NIH. He's working on a possible new treatment for infant leukemia. When he finishes his COBRE-funded project, he'll graduate to a mentoring role within the new cancer genetics center.

In addition to funding junior researchers, the grant provides support for their mentors, for the purchase of equipment and for the creation of laboratories providing needed services to researchers.

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