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Philanthropy propels new lung cancer research

Donor-funded research advances work of U lung cancer team

Every day in his University of Minnesota lab, researcher Joel McCauley, M.D., confronts a stubborn and challenging adversary—lung cancer—but he never labors in isolation. He works regularly with colleagues across the University to find more effective treatments.

“Lung cancer is the [country’s] No. 1 cancer killer on an annual basis,” McCauley says. In the United States, nearly 160,000 people die of lung cancer each year. Current treatments, primarily surgery and chemotherapy, have not advanced in recent years. “They don’t do much to impact survival,” he says.

But, thanks to philanthropic support, McCauley and his colleagues are driven to change that.

Essential support

When Joyce Lammersen of St. Cloud, Minn., died from lung cancer in 2008, she left a $26,000 estate gift to the Minnesota Medical Foundation to support lung cancer research at the University’s Center for Lung Science and Health (CLSH). In turn, the Center directed those funds to help launch McCauley’s research in non-small cell lung cancer, which accounts for 85 to 90 percent of lung cancer cases.

McCauley, a senior fellow in the University’s Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine, will be joining the CLSH faculty this fall.

Philanthropic support is essential to getting new ideas off the ground before they are far enough along to compete for major federal funding, says thoracic surgeon Jonathan D’Cunha, M.D., Ph.D., one of McCauley’s research partners. “The support through this gift is going to pay huge dividends.”

A collaborative research approach

Together, McCauley and D’Cunha are investigating the use of targeted drugs on pathways in lung cancer cells. McCauley says of one of the compounds, “These are very specific. One such compound interferes with the cancer cells’ ability to make proteins, which they need to survive.”

McCauley and D’Cunha also are working together to develop a systematic approach to help doctors evaluate lung nodules found on X-rays and CAT scans—often the first indicator of lung cancer.

CLSH director Marshall Hertz, M.D., says that lung scans have greatly improved in the last 10 years. “We find way more spots than we used to,” he says, adding that once spots are found, doctors can learn more about the cancer through PET scans, biopsies, and ultrasounds. McCauley will play a major role in developing this program, which brings together pulmonologists, surgeons, oncologists, radiologists, and others. This team will also explore investigational opportunities to further advance this work, as nodule screening is expected to increase in popularity.

McCauley is also working with Peter Bitterman, M.D., a University professor, executive research director in the CLSH, and co-leader of the University’s Genetic Mechanisms of Cancer Research Program in the Masonic Cancer Center (MCC). Bitterman works to understand how genetic changes cause cancer and tests novel compounds, synthesized at the University, that are designed to correct these genetic changes. “Cancers hijack a key step in the gene expression pathway. We’re developing molecular and pharmacological treatments to regain control,” he explains.

Their research is currently in the pre-clinical trial phase and includes a broad range of faculty from the Medical School, College of Pharmacy, and the College of Science and Engineering, as well as researchers at Mayo Clinic, New York University, McGill University in Canada, and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

Part of the University’s broader team

CLSH members work in collaboration with many other University scientists and physicians to achieve advances in lung cancer research and treatment, including members of the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center. Michael Maddaus, M.D., a professor and chief of the University’s Division of Thoracic and Foregut Surgery, is a driving force in lung cancer research. Other prominent researchers include Robert Kratzke, M.D., and Arkadiusz Dudek, M.D., Ph.D., medical oncologists performing clinical trials on treatments for solid tumors, and Stephen Hecht, Ph.D., who leads the MCC’s Carcinogenesis and Chemoprevention Program. University scientist Dorothy Hatsukami, Ph.D., in the Department of Psychiatry, is also internationally known for her research in tobacco and nicotine prevention and control.

“We have a serious vision,” says Hertz of the University’s team-focused efforts to combat lung cancer. But the success of new treatments comes down to the ability to explore novel ideas—which requires seed funding.

“All new ideas need modest amounts of money,” agrees Bitterman. “The biggest advantage is getting that jumpstart. It makes a huge difference.”

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