Dec. 18, 2015:

As the year is winding down Big Ten university researchers have not lost their momentum. As we look back over this past year, great accomplishments along with generous grants and gifts are the hallmarks worthy of celebration.

Big Ten CRC members are committed to improving treatment paradigms, and they continue to do just that through rigorously investigating correlations with far-reaching effects. A few examples include new insight into restoring cancer suppressor activity to damaged genes and identifying specific genes correlated with lung cancer tumor formation and metastasis; a comprehensive study that shows the relationship of mastectomy to survival; and new developments that promise to revolutionize clinical tests used in diagnosing and treating different cancers.

We look forward to the further advances that will come from Big Ten cancer centers in 2016 and beyond. For now, here are a few highlights from Across the Consortium: 

University of Illinois Cancer Center

Years of research in University of Illinois scientist John Erdman’s laboratory have demonstrated that lycopene, the bioactive red pigment found in tomatoes, reduces growth of prostate tumors in a variety of animal models. Until now, though, he did not have a way to trace lycopene’s metabolism in the human body.

“Our team has learned to grow tomato plants in suspension culture that produce lycopene molecules with a heavier molecular weight. With this tool, we can trace lycopene’s absorption, biodistribution, and metabolism in the body of healthy adults. In the future, we will be able to conduct such studies in men who have prostate cancer and gain important information about this plant component’s anti-cancer activity,” said John W. Erdman Jr., a U of I emeritus professor of nutrition.

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Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center

A simple, ultrasensitive microRNA sensor developed by researchers from the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the IU School of Medicine and the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center holds promise for the design of new diagnostic strategies and, potentially, for the prognosis and treatment of pancreatic and other cancers.

In a study published in the November issue of ACS Nano, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society focusing on nanoscience and nanotechnology research, the IUPUI researchers describe their design of the novel, low-cost, nanotechnology-enabled reusable sensor. They also report on the promising results of tests of the sensor’s ability to identify pancreatic cancer or indicate the existence of a benign condition by quantifying changes in levels of microRNA signatures linked to pancreatic cancer. MicroRNAs are small molecules of RNA that regulate how larger RNA molecules lead to protein expression. As such, microRNAs are very important in biology and disease states.

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University of Iowa Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center

A new University of Iowa study has shown those with stage IV breast cancer are living longer and it might be because of something once thought unneeded.

The study, published earlier this month, looked at more than 21,000 cases from the past two and a half decades. Researchers focused on survival rates. They found from 1988 to 1991, median survival was around 20 months. Between the years 2007 and 2011, median survival jumped to 26 months.

UIHC Oncologist Dr. Alexandra Thomas said she wanted to help conduct the study in part because she was seeing more success with her own patients.

“We’re seeing more and more stories like that,” Dr. Thomas said. “We wanted to ask, what does this look like broadly in the United States.”

Dr. Thomas said the data study suggested primary tumor removal may be why more are living longer. In the past, primary tumors were often ignored to give patients a better quality of life by avoiding a mastectomy.

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University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center

Researchers at the University of Michigan  are testing a new microscope that will radically change brain tumor surgery—making it safer and more efficient. So far, they have used the microscope on tissues from 89 patients with great success.

One of the most difficult things for a brain surgeon is figuring out exactly where a brain tumor starts and stops because brain tumor tissue can be hard to distinguish from the rest of the brain. The new stimulated Raman scattering (SRS) microscope allows the edges of a tumor to be seen in a few seconds instead of waiting the 30-45 minutes it usually takes for a frozen tumor section to be developed.

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Michigan State University Breslin Cancer Center

The Michigan State University College of Human Medicine celebrated a construction milestone Nov. 19 with the “topping off” of the MSU Grand Rapids Research Center.

More than a dozen MSU researchers and 35 construction trade workers watched as the last construction beam was hoisted. On the beam were an American flag representing patriotism, an evergreen tree symbolizing good luck and prosperity, and an MSU Spartan flag representing Michigan State University’s commitment to the Grand Rapids community.

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Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota

Responses to tamoxifen were significantly prolonged by reducing levels of the enzyme APOBEC3B in preclinical models of estrogen receptor–positive breast cancer and significantly shortened by increasing levels of APOBEC3B, suggesting that APOBEC3B drives resistance to tamoxifen, according to data presented at the 2015 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, held Dec. 8–12.

In complementary clinical analyses, among patients with recurrent estrogen receptor–positive breast cancer treated with tamoxifen, those who had high levels of APOBEC3B in their primary tumors had shorter durations of progression-free survival than those whose primary tumors had low APOBEC3B levels (medians of 7.5 versus 13.3 months).

“Several recent studies have linked elevated levels of the enzyme APOBEC3B in estrogen receptor–positive breast cancer with poor patient outcomes, but whether APOBEC3B actually drives the poor outcomes has not been determined,” said Reuben Harris, PhD, investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and member of the Masonic Cancer Center. “Our preclinical studies using an established xenograft model of estrogen receptor–positive breast cancer show that APOBEC3B can drive tamoxifen resistance.”

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Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center (University of Nebraska)

After skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the United States and is the second leading cause of death from cancer in men. In Nebraska, it’s the third most diagnosed cancer behind breast and lung. While a serious disease, 77 percent of Nebraska prostate cancer cases are diagnosed at an early stage of disease, providing opportune time for successful treatment options.

Providing the best treatment for prostate cancer and furthering research is the focus of a $5 million gift to the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center from the estate of Nebraska native Glenn Korff.

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Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University

Worldwide, lung cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer. Most frequently, mortality is the result of metastasis – when lung cancer spreads to other parts of the body, such as the brain, bones, or liver. In a recent study, Northwestern Medicine scientists showed for the first time that the Myosin 9b gene is correlated with lung cancer tumor formation and metastasis.

Myo9b, the protein that the gene encodes, was seen in approximately 90 percent of lung cancer tissue samples in the study, and higher levels of it predicted shorter patient survival. The finding suggests that reducing or silencing expression of Myo9b in cancer cells could help patients suffering from metastatic lung cancer.

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Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute

Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine, working with Chinese and American colleagues, have discovered a novel way to enhance and restore cancer suppressor activity in B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, resulting in better outcomes in a pre-clinical model of the disease. The finding could pave the way for a new class of drugs for this and other forms of leukemia.

Read more.

Purdue University Center for Cancer Research

The founder of a life sciences startup that is commercializing a Purdue University innovation says a test to detect circulating tumor cells in a patient’s bloodstream could improve the chances of survival and quality of life.

Cagri Savran, founder and manager of Savran Technologies, said there is only one test approved currently by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to detect rare tumor cells.

“Unfortunately, this device misses a lot of cells, which leads to false negative results,” he said. “When a device doesn’t work well, not only do the personnel at pathology labs in hospitals not want to buy it, but they also are not using the test as much as they should.”

Purdue researchers, led by Savran, have developed a minimally invasive technology that is highly effective and adaptable in detecting rare target cells. The technology was exclusively licensed to the company by the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization. More than 20 startups based on Purdue intellectual property were launched in the 2015 fiscal year.

“Our technology utilizes a design that recognizes a very small number of target cells. It can remove a significant portion of the other cells that you don’t want to detect,” said Savran, who also is an associate professor in Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering. “It can be adapted to detect different types of cells that signify the presence of different diseases in a sample and is flexible enough to use a variety of samples including blood, urine and other fluids.

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Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey

Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey researcher ‘Jessie’ Yanxiang Guo, PhD, has received a $628,884 Transition Career Development Award (K22CA190521) from the National Cancer Institute to investigate the role of a cell survival mechanism known as autophagy in lung cancers driven by the active Kras protein, which is responsible for cell division.  The aim is to provide a new strategy for lung cancer treatment.

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University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center

University of Wisconsin scientists have succeeded in growing functional vocal-cord tissue in the laboratory, a major step toward restoring a voice to people who have lost their vocal cords to cancer surgery or other injuries.

Dr. Nathan Welham, a speech-language pathologist, and colleagues from several disciplines, were able to bioengineer vocal-cord tissue able to transmit sound, they reported in a study published today in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

About 20 million Americans suffer from voice impairments, and many have damage to the vocal-cord mucosae, the specialized tissues that vibrate as air moves over them, giving rise to voice.

While injections of collagen and other materials can help some in the short term, Welham says not much can be done for people who have had larger areas of their vocal cords damaged or removed.

Read more.

Information for this story was compiled from Big Ten CRC member websites, news releases, and social media.

About the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium: The Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium creates a unique team-research culture to drive science rapidly from ideas to treatment-changing paradigms. Within this innovative environment, today’s research leaders collaborate with and mentor the research leaders of tomorrow with the unified goal of improving the lives of all patients with cancer.

About the Big Ten Conference: The Big Ten Conference is an association of world-class universities whose member institutions share a common mission of research, graduate, professional and undergraduate teaching and public service. Founded in 1896, the Big Ten has sustained a comprehensive set of shared practices and policies that enforce the priority of academics in the lives of students competing in intercollegiate athletics and emphasize the values of integrity, fairness and competitiveness. The broad-based programs of the 14 Big Ten institutions will provide over $200 million in direct financial support to almost 9,500 students for more than 11,000 participation opportunities on 350 teams in 42 different sports. The Big Ten sponsors 28 official conference sports, 14 for men and 14 for women, including the addition of men’s ice hockey and men’s and women’s lacrosse since 2013. For more information, visit