Ovarian Cancer Research Fund awards $1.35M to pathology faculty members

Faculty members in the USF Department of Pathology and Cell Biology recently received two grants totaling $1.35 million from the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund (OCRF), one of the largest independent organizations in the United States dedicated to exclusively supporting innovative ovarian cancer research.

Santo Nicosia, MD, chair of Pathology and Cell Biology, is the program principal investigator of a three-year, $900,000 OCRF Program Project Development Grant that will help identify new diagnostic and therapeutic targets for ovarian cancer.  Dr. Nicosia will work with co-principal investigators Wenlong Bai, PhD, and Patricia Kruk, PhD, to conduct the research needed to develop an integrated grant proposal for submission to peer-reviewed funding agencies such as the National Cancer Institute or the Department of Defense.

Mary Zhang, PhD, an assistant professor of Pathology and Cell Biology, received a three-year, $450,000 Liz Tilberis Scholar Award to investigate what causes most ovarian cancers to become resistant to platinum-based chemotherapies – a major obstacle to treatment. This OCRF award helps develop the investigative careers of junior faculty with a strong commitment to ovarian cancer research.

L to R: Dr. Wenlong Bai, Dr. Patricia Kruk, Dr. Santo Nicosia and Dr. Mary Zhang

“These are prestigious awards not only because they recognize the contributions and longstanding dedication of USF Health researchers,” Dr. Nicosia said, “but also because they support continued innovative and interactive research with other distinguished colleagues.”

USF was one of three recipients of OCRF Program Project Development Grants awarded nationally this year. Dr. Nicosia’s team will explore, through three interrelated projects, the genetic and molecular mechanisms that regulate ovarian cancer growth and progression. Dr. Kruk will study signatures by a defective BRCA1 gene that may help identify malignant ovarian tumor growth in its earliest stages.  Dr. Bai will investigate the role of vitamin D in the suppression of cancer invasiveness. Dr. Nicosia will test the hypothesis that a urinary biomarker (high motility group proteins HMGA2) may provide a cost-effective, noninvasive way to detect ovarian cancer earlier.

“Our research is focused on identifying new preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic targets that may lead to a better understanding of the underlying biology and genetics of ovarian cancer and ultimately a cure for the most deadly gynecological cancer today,” Dr. Kruk said.

Dr. Zhang studies histone deacetylases (HDACs), enzymes involved in a variety of biological processes including regulation of gene expression, cell growth and differentiation, and programmed cell death.  With the support of the Liz Tilberis grant, she will identify mechanisms by which HDAC6 confers resistance to chemotherapy and look for HDAC6 inhibitors that may help clinicians restore chemotherapy sensitivity in patients with ovarian cancer.

“I am honored to receive a Liz Tilberis Scholar Award and grateful for a nurturing departmental environment,” Dr. Zhang said. “By supporting and promoting young investigators such as me, the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund encourages innovative research with the potential for significant clinical impact.”

Ovarian cancer is a disease with vague symptoms and no sufficiently accurate early screening test. The American Cancer Society estimates that 21,880 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the U.S. in 2010, and about 13,850 women will die from the disease.

Story by Anne DeLotto Baier, and photo by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications