University Scientists Receive $1.3 Million in Grants for Cancer Research

Dr. Jie Zheng on right

Dr. Jie Zheng (right), associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, works with Dr. Mengxiao Yu, a research assistant professor, in his lab. Zheng was awarded a $200,000 grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas for his work aimed at improving chemotherapy-based treatment.

UT Dallas researchers have in recent months received $1.3 million in research grants to support new insights and ideas aimed at the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cancer.

In May, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced 35 new awards to Texas researchers and companies. Two UT Dallas faculty members, Dr. Jie Zheng, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Dr. Zhenpeng Qin, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, each received $200,000 to support their research under the agency’s High-Impact/High-Risk awards program.

Dr. Li Zhang, professor of biological sciences, received a nearly $900,000 CPRIT grant last November to support her research on lung cancer.

To date, seven UT Dallas researchers have received 11 CPRIT grants totaling nearly $8.8 million. Statewide, CPRIT has awarded 1,033 grants totaling more than $1.57 billion. The agency was launched in 2009 after Texas voters approved a 2007 bond issue committing $3 billion to the fight against cancer.   

Drug Delivery to the Brain

Brain tumors are known to be lethal, with a median survival of about 14.6 months for a type of cancer called glioblastoma multiforme, according to the American Brain Tumor Association. One of the obstacles to delivering drugs to the brain is the presence of blood-brain barrier, which allows only certain materials to cross from the bloodstream into brain tissue.

Dr. Zhenpeng Qin

Dr. Zhenpeng Qin, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, received a $200,000 grant to support his research on making the delivery of cancer drugs to the brain easier.

“The blood-brain barrier is a sophisticated structure that gives an optimal environment for brain function but also severely limits the penetration of anti-cancer drugs,” Qin said. “The goal of our project is to develop a novel approach to open the blood-brain barrier and allow the access of a wide range of therapeutic drugs to brain tumor cells.”

Specifically, Qin’s approach is to use nanoparticles that can be triggered with infrared light to disrupt and temporarily compromise the blood-brain barrier. Optically triggering the blood-brain barrier opening will allow the use of more effective anti-cancer drugs that were previously unavailable due to the barrier, he said.

“With more effective therapy to the tumor cells, we expect substantially reduced side effects that brain tumor patients currently suffer from chemotherapy treatment, and eventually improved survival and quality of life.

Qin’s collaborators include Dr. Shashank Sirsi and Dr. Heather Hayenga, both assistant professors of bioengineering at UT Dallas; Dr. Edward Pan, a neuro-oncologist and brain tumor specialist at UT Southwestern Medical Center; and Dr. Elisabetta Dejana of the University of Milan. 

Reducing Chemotherapy Side Effects

Zheng’s research focuses on the biomedical use of gold nanoparticles. His grant supports a project that investigates how the nanoparticles might be used as a drug delivery mechanism to treat a subtype of breast cancer called triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC).

Many successful breast cancer treatments target a set of three receptors that fuel tumor growth, but patients with TNBC lack all three of them. About 10 percent to 20 percent of breast cancers are this subtype, which is particularly aggressive, difficult to treat and more likely to recur than other subtypes of breast cancer.

The goal of Zheng’s research is to improve chemotherapy-based treatment and minimize its side effects.

“Chemotherapy patients suffer from a variety of side effects such as pain, fever, numbness and nausea, mainly due to accumulation of anti-cancer drugs in normal tissues and healthy organs,” Zheng said. “How to diminish such side effects without impacting the battle against the tumor has been a long-term challenge in cancer chemotherapy.”

His project aims to manipulate gold nanoparticles so that they can effectively deliver anti-cancer drugs to triple-negative breast tumors without the need to target receptors. In addition, his approach would keep drug molecules in the tumor for a long period of time, release them in tumor sites, and then rapidly carry untargeted drug molecules out of the body through the urinary system.

“This proposal’s success will significantly improve the therapeutic potency of anti-cancer drug molecules, minimize side effects induced by drug molecules, and, hopefully, greatly improve cancer patients’ life quality,” Zheng said.

Zheng received previous CPRIT grants in 2011 and 2014, totaling more than $2.1 million. 

Drug-Resistant Lung Cancer

Zhang is investigating both how lung tumors become resistant to drugs and new strategies to potentially block tumors’ ability to develop resistance.

Dr. Li Zhang

Dr. Li Zhang, professor of biological sciences, received a nearly $900,000 grant to support her research on lung cancer.

Her project is examining how drug resistance might be linked to changes in the growth of blood vessels that provide oxygen and other vital nutrients to tumors. She will use an animal model to study the effects of an approved lung-cancer drug that works by blocking the formation of new blood vessels. However, the drug also can cause tumors to become more aggressive and invasive.

In previous research, Zhang and her colleagues discovered that cells of the most common type of lung cancer — non-small cell lung cancer — consume substantially more oxygen than normal cells. The lung cancer cells also outpace their normal counterparts in synthesizing a critical chemical called heme, which helps transport and store oxygen.

“We want to find out to what extent drug resistance is linked to changes in tumor blood vessels, the state of oxygenation, and the levels of heme and respiratory functions that are vital for cellular energy generation,” said Zhang, who holds the Cecil H. and Ida Green Distinguished Chair in Systems Biology Science. “We also want to find out the extent to which inhibiting respiratory function in cells can delay or arrest the growth of lung tumors at various stages of tumor development.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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