Nov. 13, 2019:

H. Rex Gaskins, PhD, associate director for education at the Cancer Center at Illinois (CCIL) and Keith W. and Sarah M. Kelly Professor of Immunophysiology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been appointed to represent the university on the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium (Big Ten CRC) Steering Committee.

As a collaboration among Big Ten universities, the Big Ten CRC leverages the scientific and clinical expertise of its members by developing and conducting early phase oncology clinical trials. In 2018, CCIL established itself as a research institute on the Urbana-Champaign campus and joined the consortium earlier this year. The cancer center brings its strengths in basic science and engineering to develop new methods in preventing, diagnosing, and treating cancer.

“Our cancer center places a strong emphasis on multidisciplinary research and translational research, where we integrate basic scientific research and innovation, with the goal of bringing new treatments from the bench to the bedside,” Dr. Gaskins said. “We have two research programs; one is Cancer Measurement Technology and Data Science and the other is Cancer Discovery Platforms Bridging the Engineering-Biology Continuum. We are heavily focused on engineering, which is a strength of the University of Illinois, and we have a lot of expertise in bioimaging.”

Additionally, the cancer center is placing a strong emphasis on education for both university students and high school students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The Tissue Microenvironment (TiMe) Training Program, which Dr. Gaskins co-leads, is a university-wide training program geared toward graduate students. The program is supported by a T32 institutional training grant from the National Institutes of Health and requires intensive mentoring and structured activities to support professional development. The TiMe program also integrates technology in its training, including computational modeling and imaging to measure biochemical and biophysical parameters.

Dr. Gaskins said he is excited to contribute opportunities for the Big Ten CRC through his involvement in the Steering Committee.

“I am particularly interested in establishing dialogue and action plans with other members of the Steering Committee that will enable collaborative efforts to enhance graduate and postdoctoral education to create a sustainable workforce focused on cancer,” he said.

Dr. Gaskins’ primary research focus is on host-intestinal microbe interactions that relate to colorectal cancer, with an emphasis on microbial sulfur and bile acid metabolism.

One of the most notable studies was conducted in collaboration with Dr. Xavier Llor and Professor Nathan Ellis at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who had established the Chicago Colorectal Cancer Consortium to specifically address potential genetic or biological differences that may contribute to the increased incidence of colorectal cancer in African Americans. They conducted a study that systematically analyzed uninvolved mucosal biopsies from a large cohort of African American and non-Hispanic white (NHW) cancer patients and healthy control subjects undergoing screening colonoscopy (Yazici et al., Gut, 2017). The paper reported striking differences between the African American and NHW groups, with a 10-fold greater abundance of sulfidogenic bacteria in the colonic mucosa of African Americans relative to NHWs independent of disease status and a 2.5-fold greater abundance of Bilophila wadsworthia in uninvolved mucosa of African American cancer patients relative to NHW cancer patients. These data indicate that it may be possible to risk stratify ethnic populations at high risk of colon cancer based on their mucosal microbiome and its capacity for sulfur or bile acid metabolism. The bacterium, Bilophila wadsworthia specifically is now a legitimate target for biomarker trials in colorectal cancer. Moreover, the study provides novel understanding of a mechanistically targeted nutrient that that can be used to develop effective cancer prevention interventions based simply on diet that may contribute to a reduction in the unequal colon cancer burden in African American men and women.

Dr. Gaskins joined the faculty at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1992. He received a PhD in cell biology from the University of Georgia in 1989 and completed postdoctoral studies in immunology and genetics at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1992. Currently, Dr. Gaskins is a professor with appointments in the Departments of Animal Sciences and Pathobiology, the Division of Nutritional Sciences, and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology.

About the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium: The Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium was created in 2013 to transform the conduct of cancer research through collaborative, hypothesis-driven, highly translational oncology trials that leverage the scientific and clinical expertise of Big Ten universities. The goal of the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium is to create a unique team-research culture to drive science rapidly from ideas to new approaches to cancer treatment. 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