Getting new research programs off the ground is a difficult process, which is why the competitive grants from Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Universal Research Enhancement (CURE) program are so important. With CURE funding, Wistar researchers have been able to jump-start new research efforts, allowing them to gather the data necessary to pursue larger grants. The CURE program was established in 2001 with funds from the landmark Tobacco Settlement Fund. Each year, seventy percent of the annual CURE fund goes to so-called formula grants, based on how much an institution receives in research funding from the National Institutes of Health. Competitive grants comprise the rest, and are made based on the strength of a research application.
At a ceremony on July 18th, 2013, Michael Wolf, Pennsylvania's Secretary of Health, presented nearly $1.5 million in research grants to five Wistar scientists.
Below are the innovative new projects that CURE grants will make possible:
• Uncovering Hidden Instructions within Our Genome
Principal Investigator: Ramana Davuluri, Ph.D.
Studies of the human genome suggest that at least half of our genes are responsible for multiple versions of individual protein—called isoforms—each with its own unique role. Many of these protein isoforms are directly involved in the ability of cancer cells to thrive. The Davuluri laboratory will use this funding to develop new computational tools to untangle vast amounts of complex genetic data in order to identify these isoforms and how they are regulated in both normal and cancerous cells
• Turning the Immune System against Multiple Myeloma
Principal Investigator: Yulia Nefedova, M.D., Ph.D.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells, a type of blood cell that produces antibodies. With this funding, the Nefedova laboratory seeks to develop a strategy aimed to improve anti-tumor immune responses by targeting immature myeloid cells of the bone marrow, which contribute to the disease’s progression.
• Charting the Origins of Breast and Ovarian Cancers
Principal Investigator: Ramin Sheikhattar, Ph.D.
The long-term goal of the Sheikhattar laboratory is to provide molecular-level detail on the function BRCA1 and PALB2—genes that are lost or mutated in many breast and ovarian cancers—in order to develop new therapies against these diseases. Shiekhattar postulates that, since these genes are responsible for how cells receive outside signals, their inactivation means these breast and ovarian cancer cells do not “hear” the messages that should inhibit their growth.
• Understanding why Melanoma Drugs Fail—And Making Sure They Don’t
Principal Investigator: Ashani T. Weeraratna, Ph.D.
Melanoma is an aggressive disease for which there is a universally poor prognosis. Weeraratna has discovered that a protein called Wnt5A can mark the point at which melanoma cells become metastatic—spreading throughout the body—as well as resistant to anti-melanoma drug therapies. With CURE funding, her laboratory will test whether blocking Wnt5A’s signaling pathway can help overcome drug resistance.
• Treating an “Untreatable” Form of Melanoma
Principal Investigator: Jessie Villanueva, Ph.D.
Nearly 25 percent of melanoma cases are marked by mutations in the NRAS gene. In a disease that is already highly deadly, tumors with NRAS mutations are extremely aggressive and are among the most difficult tumors to treat, with no effective therapies available. Drugs that target NRAS itself have been unsuccessful, so the Villanueva lab is searching for the key proteins that enable NRAS mutant melanomas to survive.