Stephenson Cancer Center Researchers Awarded Three Department of Defense Ovarian Cancer Research Grants

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Stephenson Cancer Center researchers have been awarded three highly competitive Department of Defense research grants to investigate how ovarian cancer cells develop, why they often develop resistance to standard cancer drugs, and new therapeutic strategies to fight this deadly disease. The investigators, Dr. Resham Bhattacharya and Dr. Danny Dhanasekaran, are members of the cancer center’s Gynecologic Cancers Research Program. Dhanasekaran also serves as Associate Director for Basic Research at the Stephenson Cancer Center.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related death in women and is the deadliest of gynecologic cancers. In 2018, the American Cancer Society estimates approximately 22,240 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the United States, and an estimated 14,070 will die from their disease. Ovarian cancer is especially lethal because there are few early warning signs and it is often not caught until it has spread throughout the abdominal cavity.

“We are extremely proud of Drs. Bhattacharya and Dhanasekaran for successfully attaining these three ovarian cancer research grants,” said Stephenson Cancer Center Director Dr. Robert Mannel. “This success highlights both our outstanding scientists and the exceptional translational program we’ve developed in gynecologic cancers at the Stephenson Cancer Center.”

Bhattacharya, an Associate Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (OUHSC), received two of the Department of Defense grants. One project seeks to understand why some ovarian tumor cells develop resistance to chemotherapy drugs and why they come back even more aggressively after the first course of treatment. This project focuses specifically on understanding the role of BMI1, a stem cell protein that promotes tumor growth when present in high levels within the cell.

Bhattacharya’s other Department of Defense grant funds a clinical trial that complements her first project. This clinical trial utilizes a novel small molecule inhibitor designed to reduce the level of BMI1 within the cell in conjunction with a standard-of-care chemotherapy regimen for ovarian cancer patients. The trial will rigorously monitor drug tolerance, performance and outcomes of patients who are eligible and consent to participate. Dr. Kathleen Moore, a gynecologic oncologist who directs the Oklahoma TSET Phase I Clinical Trials Program at the Stephenson Cancer Center, will be Principal Investigator for the clinical trial.

Dhanasekaran, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation Endowed Chair in Cancer Research and a Professor in the Department of Cell Biology at OUHSC, was awarded a Department of Defense grant to investigate the role of long non-coding RNAs in ovarian cancer. Long non-coding RNAs, which have been called “Genomic Dark Matter” because of their ubiquitous presence in the human genome, are being increasingly implicated in numerous cellular processes. Dhanasekaran’s project looks specifically at the role of urothelial carcinoma associated 1 (UCA1), a long non-coding RNA that is over-expressed in ovarian cancer cells. The goal is to develop a novel targeted therapy for ovarian cancer based on this research.

Since 1992 the Department of Defense has supported high-quality and rigorously reviewed medical research through the Office of Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs. This Office funds research in breast, prostate and ovarian cancers, as well as neurofibromatosis, military health and other specified areas.

Last year, the Department of Defense received 426 applications for ovarian cancer research funding. A rigorous system of outside scientific peer-review ranked and prioritized 24 of these submitted projects for more than $16 million of total funding. Three of these 24 grants were award to Stephenson Cancer Center investigators.