Siteman Cancer Research Fund grants $2 million for unique approaches to fighting cancer

Five scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have received a combined $2 million in grants for their innovative approaches to fighting cancer.

The awards, from the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Research Fund, are meant to further promising early-stage science that might not receive funding from elsewhere because of its unconventional approach. Alvin J. Siteman, an emeritus Washington University trustee, chairman of Site Oil Co. and president of Flash Oil Co., established the $25 million fund in 2010.

“We are very grateful for Alvin Siteman’s continuing commitment to improving the lives of cancer patients through research,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “Mr. Siteman’s generous support allows us to study innovative approaches to addressing the challenges associated with cancer.”

Recommended by an external review panel, the projects include new methods for fighting infection and possibly tumors, and for identifying compounds that don’t harm normal tissues but can make malignant tumors more vulnerable to radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

“The Siteman research fund supports projects that show great promise for advancing cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment,” says Larry Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.

This year’s grant recipients include Kenneth Murphy, MD, PhD, who received $900,000 for research aimed at using a rare immune cell to fight infection and possibly tumors. The cells, known as CD8 alpha+ dendritic cells (CD8a+ DCs), make up about 10 percent of all dendritic cells in the body. By studying the basic functions of these cells, Murphy is working to finds ways to improve the effectiveness of cancer vaccines.

He is collaborating with William Gillanders, MD, a Siteman Cancer Center surgeon and professor in the Department of Surgery, whose work on vaccines is aimed at enlisting the power of the immune system to fight tumors.

“Learning more about how this cell interacts with other immune cells will allow us to create effective cancer vaccines,” says Murphy, the Eugene L. Opie First Centennial Professor of Pathology and Immunology.

Barry Sleckman, MD, PhD, received a $894,000 grant for his work developing a screening process to identify compounds that don’t harm normal tissues but can make malignant tumors more vulnerable to radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

Sleckman has shown that while most cells have two pathways to repair breaks in their DNA, many tumors have inactivated one of these pathways. This is beneficial for tumors as it allows them to evolve genetically in ways that can result in metastasis and resistance to treatment. However, it also means the tumor relies entirely on the other pathway for normal repair of DNA breaks. Sleckman will screen compounds for a drug that can shut down the second repair pathway.

“Normal cells exposed to these compounds will still have a way to fix double-stranded DNA breaks, but the cancerous cells won’t, and that should make them more vulnerable to radiation and chemotherapy,” says Sleckman, the Conan Professor of Pathology and Immunology and chief of the Division of Laboratory and Genomic Medicine.

Murphy and Sleckman’s grants will be disbursed over two years.

The three other recipients each received $75,000 to help advance cancer research in their laboratories. They are:

  • David Curiel, MD, PhD, director of the Division of Cancer Biology and of the Biologic Therapeutics Center.
  • Mark Watson, MD, PhD, associate professor of pathology and immunology and director of the Tissue Procurement and Multiplexed Gene Analysis Laboratories.
  • Kyunghee Choi, PhD, associate professor of pathology and immunology.

“These newly funded projects should help us lead the way to exciting discoveries and improved treatment for cancer patients here and across the globe,” says Timothy Eberlein, MD, director of the Siteman Cancer Center. “We greatly appreciate the Sitemans for their generosity in supporting our outstanding investigators.”

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

The Siteman Cancer Center, the only NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in Missouri, is ranked a top 10 cancer facility by U.S. News & World Report. Comprising the cancer research, prevention and treatment programs of Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, Siteman is also Missouri’s only member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.