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Cancer Center Launches New Research Program

The Wistar Institute Cancer Center, an international leader in cancer biology, has been restructured into three programs that build on Wistar’s scientific strengths and support research advances in areas with the most promise for yielding near-term breakthroughs in cancer treatment and prevention.

The restructuring creates a new Wistar Cancer Center program, Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis (TMM). The new program formalizes a trending shift in scientific direction for Wistar. In recent years, several Wistar investigators have been turning their research to the tumor microenvironment and they have made important advances in understanding how and why cancer grows and spreads.

“The majority of cancer deaths are not caused by the primary tumor, they are caused by metastasis, the spread of cancer to other parts of the body,” said Dario C. Altieri, M.D., director of The Wistar Institute Cancer Center and Robert and Penny Fox Distinguished Professor. “Wistar has a strong track record of success in this area. Formalizing the program will dedicate scientific and financial resources to moving our discoveries from the research bench to the patient’s bedside as quickly as possible.”

The tumor microenvironment is an emerging field of interest among cancer researchers and is a target for developing new therapeutic strategies. The tumor microenvironment supplies nutrients and structure to growing tumors, and often consists of otherwise healthy cells–even immune cells—that have been “co-opted” by the tumor. The tumor microenvironment directly affects tumor cell growth and metastasis. Wistar researcher Ellen Puré, Ph.D. explained, “…Targeting and modifying a tumor’s microenvironment…[is] like taking away the soil from a seed that wants to grow.”

The Wistar Institute Cancer Center programs in Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis (MCO) and Gene Expression and Regulation (GER) remain in place. Over the Wistar Cancer Center’s 40-year history, researchers working within these programs have made major progress in understanding the causes of cancer and developing new approaches to diagnosis and treatment. Wistar advances include discovering genetic mutations responsible for breast, lung and prostate cancers; development of monoclonal antibodies used to study the pathways and proteins involved in tumor formation; decoding the structure of the enzyme telomerase, bringing researchers closer to developing new targeted drugs to conquer cancer; and identifying and characterizing cancer stem cells that are responsible for treatment-resistant forms of melanoma and other cancers.

José Conejo-Garcia, M.D, Ph.D., a tumor immunologist who studies ovarian cancer has been appointed as leader of the new TMM Program with Meenhard Herlyn, D.V.M., Ph.D. as co-leader. Among the other changes associated with the restructuring of the Wistar Cancer Center, Maureen Murphy, Ph.D., has been appointed as the new leader of the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program with David Speicher, Ph.D., as co-program leader. Ronen Marmorstein, Ph.D., Hilary Koprowski Professor, remains leader of the Gene Expression and Regulation Program.

In addition, the Cancer Center has appointed Luis Montaner, D.V.M., Ph.D., an immunologist interested in HIV and other cancer-causing viruses, to the new role of Associate Director for Shared Facilities of the Wistar Cancer Center. Wistar has 10 such facilities which provide top-level research support to its investigators in areas ranging from microscopy to genomics to bioinformatics. Montaner will assume overall leadership for their scientific direction and alignment with Wistar’s research areas.

Finally, Nicholas J. Petrelli, M.D., medical director of the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware, joins Wistar as an adjunct faculty member and has been named to the newly created role of Associate Director for Translational Research for the Wistar Cancer Center. This leadership appointment strengthens a newly formed historic partnership between The Wistar Institute and the National Cancer Institute-designated Helen F. Graham Cancer Center to facilitate active clinician-scientist collaborations and promote the translation of Wistar discoveries to benefit cancer patients.