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Research grant helps post-doctoral fellow study cause of cancer

<p>Janice Thomas, post-doctoral fellow, received a $100,000 two-year grant to explore a new approach to cancer treatment.</p>

Janice Thomas, post-doctoral fellow, received a $100,000 two-year grant to explore a new approach to cancer treatment.

A researcher at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey has received a $100,000 two-year grant to explore a new approach to cancer treatment.

The grant, funded by the New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research, will allow Rutgers post-doctoral fellow Janice Thomas to study an activator of unregulated cell growth.

Thomas said she received the grant based on her research’s preliminary data. In her most recent work, she and her team have determined that the activator leads to the overproduction of the protein mammalian target of rapamycin, or mTOR, a main controller in cell growth and metabolism.

She said the team currently knows mTOR overproduction is prevalent in colon and breast cancer, but her research has provided evidence that the protein also plays a big role in other forms of cancer.

“Since the commission gives out grants based on preliminary data, my work appears very promising,” Thomas said.

According to the New Jersey Department of Health Director of Communications Donna Leusner, Thomas received 1 of 24 grants awarded by the commission each year.

Thomas said about 30 to 40 Rutgers researchers applied for the commission’s grants, though only 10 graduate and post-graduate doctors received them. All of the recipients were researchers from the cancer institute or New Jersey Medical School.

“[Thomas’] research could help change the way breast cancer is identified and ultimately aid in developing new therapies to fight the disease,” according to a statement by Leusner in an article on mycentraljersey.com.

The cancer drug rapamycin already targets mTOR, which Thomas said has been an effective FDA-approved drug for some breast and colon cancer patients.

“We know rapamycin works against mTOR, but we don’t know why or how,” she said.

She said she hopes to use the grant money to understand the mechanism of mTOR to develop a more specialized treatment for every cancer patient.

Thomas said the initiative, called precision medicine, is based on the genetics behind cancer.

Thomas’s research team has begun looking at the genomes of patients’ tumors to better understand the mechanism and improve the drug’s effectiveness, she said. The genomes act as labels for the tumors, which can then be matched with effective treatments.

She said once the genomes have been matched, the physicians at the cancer institute could prescribe treatments specific to patients by combining or modifying existing versions of known treatments.

A greater database of mutations of tumors will provide more data for physicians to work with, allowing for more combined and modified treatments to be made over time, Thomas said.

“This is going to make a big impact,” she said.

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation reported an estimated 232,340 new cases of breast cancer in the U.S. this year alone, according to an article on its website.

Thomas said only an estimated 5 to 10 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have an inherited genetic mutation. That means 90 to 95 percent of women with breast cancer who develop mutations spontaneously.

According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention website, breast cancer is the most common cancer found in women.

“My heart is really in this [because] all women are at risk,” she said.

She said such factors as diet, behavior and environment all influence a woman’s individual risk of breast cancer development.

Steven Zheng, the head of Thomas’s laboratory, said although the team has not conducted clinical trials yet, the preliminary data on cancer models in mice has been very promising.

Part of the grant money will go toward developing tests for actual human patients, he said. This process, called translational medicine, is one of the main principles of the institute.

Dr. Vassiliki Karantza-Wadsworth, an assistant professor at the institute, is also working on the tests with Thomas and Zheng.

He said because everyone has unique DNA, everyone requires a different treatment. The activator Thomas found will serve as a useful diagnostic tool for predicting treatment and the outcome of treatment.

“Clearly, not all cancer is created equally,” Karantza-Wadsworth said.

Zheng said Dr. Robert DiPaola, the director of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, is pioneering this effort to develop the method of patient-specific medicine.

“The Cancer Institute of New Jersey is really leading the nation in this effort [for precision medicine],” he said.

Zheng said the grant expires in June 2015.

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