UNC Health Talk

UNC Lineberger to partner in $12 million effort to find treatments for genetically-linked cancers

September 22, 2015

A new, multi-institution research endeavor brings UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers together with scientists from eight other leading institutions to find treatments for a group of rare cancers all caused by a particular gene mutation.

The researchers won a five-year, $12 million grant through the NCI’s competitive NCI Specialized Programs of Research Excellence initiative. The effort, which is led by the Indiana University School of Medicine and the University of California San Francisco, is the first such project to take on a group of cancers linked to mutations in the NF1 gene. It will take advantage of UNC Linebeger’s expertise in the analysis of cancer-promoting signaling pathways and cancer genetics to try to find new effective treatments and drug targets for cancers caused by the loss of NF1 function.

“This highly prestigious award links basic science with clinical research to drive new treatment strategies for a range of cancers caused by NF1 gene mutations,” said Gary L. Johnson, PhD, a UNC Lineberger member and the Kenan Distinguished Professor and chair in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Pharmacology. “The project will leverage UNC’s demonstrated expertise in chemical proteomics and next-generation genomic sequencing to allow us to better understand, on a molecular level, what is driving these cancers, and how they’re evading treatment.”

Rather than funding studies for one cancer type, the grant takes a new approach by targeting multiple cancers that develop because of NF1 mutations. The mutations cause a genetic disorder known as neurofibromatosis type 1, which frequently develops in children and young adults, and can cause tumors in the skin, nervous system and blood. The disorder occurs in about 3,000 to 4,000 people per year worldwide, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Genetics Home Reference.

With the award, researchers will be testing treatments that are designed to block cancer-causing changes that occur because of NF1 mutations. Specifically, they will be testing drugs that block enzyme activities that occur because of abnormal activity of a gene called Ras, which is the most commonly mutated oncogene in human cancers, Johnson said. The NF1 gene normally codes for a protein that helps control Ras. And because NF1 is mutated in people with neurofibromatosis type 1, it leads to uncontrolled Ras activity. Ras, in turn, drives activation of a number of different proteins called kinases, which help drive tumor growth.

Johnson’s lab developed a technique to determine kinase activities in cells. The plan is to leverage that expertise – as well as UNC’s expertise in genomic sequencing – to determine how patients respond to different drugs targeting the Ras pathway, as well as to find new clinical drug targets.

“We want to know if these drugs work, and if not, why not,” Johnson said. “We will be using DNA and RNA sequencing as well as protein kinase activity analysis to try to accomplish that goal.”

The trial requires collaboration across multiple institutions because of the rare nature of the disorder. The grant is led by investigators at the Indiana University School of Medicine and UCSF, along with researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health, University of Texas Southwestern, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and City of Hope National Medical Center.

“This award is the first Specialized Programs of Research Excellence grant to ever be focused on a series of cancers in a common biochemical pathway, and a SPORE grant focused on orphan diseases in children, adolescents, and young adults,” said D. Wade Clapp, MD, a principal investigator with the project and the chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the IU School of Medicine, as well as a member of the IU Melvin & Bren Simon Cancer Center, and the Herman B. Wells Center for Pediatric Research. “This SPORE is by design multi-institutional because of the rare nature of this disease.”

In addition to Johnson, other UNC investigators working on the project include David Eberhard, MD, PhD, an associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and a UNC Lineberger researcher; Shawn Gomez, an associate professor in the UNC/NCSU Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering and in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Pharmacology; Piotr Mieczkowski, PhD, director of UNC’s High Throughput Sequencing Facility and an associate professor of genetics; and Joel Parker, PhD, a UNC Lineberger member and assistant professor of genetics.