Researchers at OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center at The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Earn Grant for Endometrial Cancer Research

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Researchers at OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center at The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Earn Grant for Endometrial Cancer Research

Increasing numbers of women are being diagnosed with endometrial cancer, a common gynecologic cancer that begins in the lining of the uterus. Researchers at OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center at The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences are sharpening their focus on the disease through a collaboration funded by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

OU Health Sciences received funds through an $11.6 million SPORE grant (Specialized Programs of Research Excellence) along with Washington University in St. Louis and the University of New Mexico. This is the first time researchers in Oklahoma have been awarded SPORE funding. This type of grant allows researchers from several institutions to leverage their combined expertise to better understand diseases that affect a specific organ, in this case the uterus, and to test promising new treatments.

“We are calling it the Route 66 Endometrial Cancer SPORE because all three institutions are located along Route 66,” said Doris Benbrook, Ph.D., a Stephenson Cancer Center researcher who is leading Oklahoma’s participation. “This is an exciting opportunity to conduct different types of research into endometrial cancer and to bring new clinical trials to Oklahoma.”

The grant will fund research in three primary areas, each of which will include a clinical trial. Benbrook’s own drug, called OK-1, which is now being tested in a Phase I trial at Stephenson Cancer Center, will be studied in a new clinical trial that combines it with chemotherapy for the treatment of endometrial cancer. The trial will start after the completion of the current Phase I trial, which will determine the ideal dosage of the drug for treatment. Co-leading the new trial will be Kathleen Moore, M.D., deputy director at Stephenson Cancer Center and professor in the OU College of Medicine at OU Health Sciences.

A second trial, led by Washington University, will test an inhibitor, a drug that blocks a protein involved in endometrial cancer. The inhibitor will be combined with chemotherapy in the hopes of creating a more effective treatment. The third clinical trial, led by the University of New Mexico, will investigate the use of a weight loss drug for the prevention and treatment of early-stage endometrial cancer. Because obesity and diabetes have been linked to the onset of endometrial cancer and poor outcomes for patients, researchers hope weight loss will increase the likelihood of successful treatment. Stephenson Cancer Center will enroll patients in all three clinical trials. In the weight loss trial, Stephenson researchers will also examine obstacles patients face in receiving insurance coverage for weight loss drugs.

“We are excited for this SPORE grant and for the innovative clinical trials it will bring to Oklahoma,” said Robert Mannel, M.D., Stephenson Cancer Center director. “The clinical trials, combined with laboratory-based research funded by this grant, hold tremendous potential for improving our options for both preventing and treating endometrial cancer.”

The grant also will provide funding for a variety of projects, including addressing the racial disparities among women diagnosed with endometrial cancer. African American, American Indian and Hispanic women experience endometrial cancer at a higher rate than women of other ethnicities, as well as having more aggressive cancer and worse outcomes.

“We will have research projects that focus on understanding why these disparities exist, and the community advisory boards at Stephenson Cancer Center will help spread the word about our clinical trials to people who have historically been underrepresented,” Benbrook said. “That underrepresentation means the clinical trials don’t adequately address how a treatment affects people from various racial groups and ethnicities.”

Grant funding also will be used to support the work of early-career researchers, as well as researchers from underrepresented populations. “We are developing specific resources to mentor them and to help them be successful with their research,” Benbrook said. “We want to be sure that our profile of researchers matches the profile of Oklahoma.”

Researchers and health professionals from several OU Health Sciences colleges are involved with the work of the grant, including the OU College of Medicine, the Fran and Earl Ziegler OU College of Nursing, and the Hudson College of Public Health. Leaders of the grant also will combine resources with Stephenson Cancer Center, Oklahoma’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center, which has similar programs designed for research success.

“Research is crucial for advancing knowledge about diseases such as endometrial cancer, then translating those discoveries into new prevention strategies and treatments,” said Gary Raskob, Ph.D., senior vice president and provost of OU Health Sciences. “The research funded by this SPORE grant is truly interdisciplinary. Together, we will maximize our ability to improve patient care, as well as support the development of researchers who want to focus on endometrial cancer.”