February 26, 2015

COPH Study Aims to Improve Lung Cancer Treatment Effectiveness

Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer today, with most patients being diagnosed in an advanced stage of the disease, too late for effective treatment. A newly funded research project by faculty in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health in the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health will explore how the special characteristics of lung cancer cells as they grow might be used to increase the effectiveness of individualized therapies to halt lung cancer.

Gunnar Boysen, Ph.D., will be the lead investigator on the project, “Systems Biology Based Diagnosis of Circulating Lung Tumor Cells.” Rosalind Penney, Ph.D., an Instructor in the same department as Dr. Boysen, will be project’s co-investigator. Eric Siegel, MS, a Research Associate in the UAMS Department of Biostatistics, and Daniel Sappington, Ph.D. candidate in the Interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program who works with Dr. Boysen, are also on the project.

For the study, Dr. Boysen was awarded a $10,000 “Seeds of Science” grant from the Envoys, a volunteer advocacy group of the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute. The award was one of three $10,000 grants presented to young investigators at the Cancer Institute at the Envoys’ “Doctor is In” reception and cancer research poster showcase on Jan. 29.

The project’s aim is to gain new understanding that will help maximize the effectiveness of new lung cancer therapies in use now that target the metabolic processes within a tumor cell. These processes enable cells to use energy, live and multiply. Scientists believe that a tumor’s cell metabolism changes as a cancer advances, and disruption of these processes can help slow or stop a cancer’s spread.

“To take full advantage of these novel metabolism-targeting therapies, it is essential to understand how tumor metabolism contributes to cell proliferation and tumor growth,” Dr. Boysen said. “We have constructed an analytic method that specifically determines metabolic pathways that are currently targeted by various therapy regimens. We aim to determine whether metabolic changes can be identified to enable individualized therapy selection.”

The unique focus of this study will be circulating cancer cells that have left the primary tumor and are poised to spread throughout the body. Cancer cells collected from patients at UAMS will be analyzed to understand types of tumor and their metabolic properties relative the stage of the cancer, how fast it is spreading and a patient’s chance of survival.

In addition, the researchers will culture cancer cells and expose them to substances that disrupt cellular processes to slow their growth. In this case, the goal will be to identify the most suitable therapies.

“If successful, these findings will make it possible to develop clinical biomarkers that can be used to personalize subsequent therapies,” Dr. Boysen said. “The proposed approach could be easily integrated into current lung cancer management, since the samples taken from cancer patients are already part of standard care at UAMS.”