VCU Massey Cancer Center finding could open doors to creating new combination therapies for an aggressive form of breast cancer

VCU Massey Cancer Center researchers have made a discovery that could lead to the creation of more effective therapies to treat HER2-positive breast cancer.

VCU Massey Cancer Center researchers have discovered why a molecule expressed with a protein known to drive 20 percent of breast cancers can lead to decreased effectiveness of a well-known targeted therapy.

They found that a molecule called microRNA-4728 prevents therapies targeting the HER2 protein from being effective. MicroRNA-4728 is co-expressed with HER2 in certain types of breast cancer cells, which means that when HER2 is overexpressed, so is microRNA-4728. Expression refers to the level of proteins in cells.

These targeted therapies, HER2 inhibitors, are currently administered with chemotherapies to boost effectivity, but chemotherapies can be extremely toxic to noncancerous, normal cells, said Anthony Faber, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Philips Institute for Oral Health Research in the VCU School of Dentistry and a member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program at Massey Cancer Center.

The finding could lead to more effective combination therapies that inhibit the overexpression of HER2 and are relatively nontoxic, Faber said.

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Devanand Sarkar’s quest to cure liver cancer

When Devanand Sarkar, Ph.D., came to VCU Massey Cancer Center in 2008, he wanted to pursue a new direction in his research. Driven by the loss of a close friend and colleague, Sarkar was on a mission to better understand the processes that drive the development of liver cancer. Nearly a decade later, his research is close to bringing about new treatments for the disease while redefining how obesity is connected to cancer.

In America, one of the biggest drivers of liver cancer is fatty liver disease due to obesity. Obesity leads to the deposition of fat in the liver, which causes chronic inflammation and eventually develops into cancer. The mechanisms behind this transformation were once a mystery, and then Sarkar unraveled them.

“It started with this gene, AEG-1,” said Sarkar, the associate director for education and training at Massey who also holds the Harrison Foundation Distinguished Professorship in Cancer Research and is a member of Massey’s Cancer Molecular Genetics research program.

Sarkar and his colleagues had originally discovered and cloned AEG-1 at Columbia University in the laboratory of Paul Fisher, Ph.D., now professor and chair of the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics at VCU School of Medicine.

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Massey doctors first in the world to use internal radiation implant to treat pancreatic cancer

The CivaSheet is a flat, flexible membrane that provides unidirectional radiation to the site of the tumor.

Doctors at VCU Massey Cancer Center are the first in the world to successfully implant a bio-absorbable, internal radiation device known as CivaSheet to treat early stage pancreatic cancer.

In March, a team of Massey experts led by Emma Fields, M.D. (Cert.’16/E), radiation oncologist; Brian Kaplan, M.D., surgical oncologist; and Dorin Todor, Ph.D., medical physicist, completed the procedure on 70-year-old William Grubbs Jr., of Varina, Virginia, and have reported no complications after six weeks.

Grubbs returned for a follow-up appointment with Kaplan more than one month after the seven-hour surgery, and said he felt no pain related to the implantation.

”If I wasn’t told the CivaSheet was there, I wouldn’t know it was inside me,” Grubbs said.

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For the greater good: Alumnus Tim Ford is bringing changes to palliative care

By Anthony Langley

“I didn’t even know that [chaplaincy] was an option for me,” says Tim Ford (M.S.’02/AHP), staff chaplain for the Thomas Palliative Care Unit at the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center. “One day in [graduate school], a professor said, ‘Some of your classmates are thinking about becoming chaplains,’ and I said, ‘We can do that?’ It was eye-opening.”

Ford, a Buddhist chaplain, began to study the teachings of Buddhism after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. Realizing he wanted to study the practice academically, he enrolled in a graduate program Naropa University in Colorado, founded by a Buddhist teacher in 1974. It was during the latter half of his studies there that he first experienced chaplaincy.

“A friend and I decided to intern as hospice chaplains that semester,” he says. “If I hadn’t, I would have never discovered how much I loved the work.”

He completed a master’s degree in religious studies focused on engaged Buddhism at Naropa, but opted not to follow the traditional Buddhist studies path, which would take him next to a doctorate degree. Instead, Ford decided he wanted to train as a chaplain and enrolled at the VCU School of Allied Health Professions to earn a master’s in patient counseling with a chaplain certification concentration.

During his studies, he worked with Massey, home to one of the nation’s flagship programs for palliative care, a specialized type of medical care for people with life-limiting illnesses. Palliative care providers focus on providing relief from the symptoms and stress of the illness to improve quality of life for patients and their families. Ford’s experiences in hospice care and the one-on-one connection he could have with his patients drew him to the field. When he graduated from VCU in 2002, he initially returned to hospice care in the Richmond, Virginia, community because there wasn’t a palliative care chaplain position at the university at the time.

“Even though I went off to do hospice, I still kept in touch with the friends I had in the palliative unit,” Ford says. “When they finally did create the chaplain position, I was first in line.”

In 2006, Ford joined Massey’s Thomas Palliative Care Unit, becoming the nation’s first full-time palliative care chaplain. In addition to counseling patients, Ford is an instructor in the School of Allied Health Professions’ patient counseling department and works, as part of Massey’s research team, to push the profession forward.

“If we found barriers that stopped us from helping a patient, we’d publish our materials to gain insight from others, and likewise, when we found something that worked, we wanted other universities to be able to try it out as well,” Ford says. “It wasn’t enough to be bedside with one patient. We had to work empirically, objectively and consistently.”

As the palliative care field has evolved and adopted a more clinical approach, Ford briefly considered focusing on performance improvement at the unit but changed his mind after realizing he’d only be helping one system. By broadening his focus, he could alter his entire field and bring advances to the palliative care units across the country.

To achieve that goal, Ford applied for and received one of eight prestigious Chaplaincy Research Fellowships in 2016 through the Transforming Chaplaincy Program supported by the John Templeton Foundation and coordinated through Rush University. The fellowship allows him to complete a two-year, research-focused Master of Public Health, which he is earning at VCU’s School of Medicine.

While his overall research focuses on clinical spirituality and how it can affect health outcomes, Ford is working alongside Brian Cassel, Ph.D., director of analytic services at Massey, to study advanced care planning and the financial impact palliative care can have on families.

“The great thing about working with Tim is that he already has the characteristics necessary to become a successful researcher: innovative thinking, attention to detail, persistence and the desire to work collaboratively on multidisciplinary projects,” Cassel says.

This semester, the pair plan to publish several articles about the issues at the intersection of public health and end-of-life care, as well as about public knowledge and attitudes toward advance care planning.

“By providing the public with resources about advanced planning, they’ll be better informed about the choices they have available and have autonomy over the care they’ll receive,” Ford says. “I’m glad to be a part of this, and I know great things will come from it.”

International study led by VCU chemistry professor finds promise in new class of anti-cancer drugs

Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D.

Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D.

A new class of platinum-based drugs has shown significant anti-metastatic effects in fighting cancer, according to a recently published study led by a Virginia Commonwealth University chemistry professor and cancer researcher.

The study, “Antiangiogenic platinum through glycan targeting,” which was published in the August edition of Chemical Science, found that polynuclear platinum-based drugs are effective by identifying new targets in tumor cells, which had previously been unidentified for platinum-based anti-cancer drugs. Chemical Science is the flagship journal the U.K.-based Royal Society of Chemistry, publishing research of exceptional significance from across the chemical sciences.

“We think our findings are very significant because it gives a whole new direction to platinum-based drugs,” said Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center. “And it gives us a whole new understanding of what was going on with the original drugs. It’s an area that might have been overlooked for 30 years. It’s opening up a whole new avenue of research for platinum-based drugs.”

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Novel combination therapy shows strong response in patients with advanced solid tumors

Paul Dent, Ph.D. (left), and Andrew Poklepovic, M.D.

Paul Dent, Ph.D. (left), and Andrew Poklepovic, M.D.

A phase 1 clinical trial testing a novel combination therapy developed by scientists at VCU Massey Cancer Center slowed the growth of cancer in the majority of trial participants, who were patients with advanced solid tumors. Approximately 61 percent of these patients experienced some degree of tumor growth delay, with multiple partial responses and one complete response. A phase 2 study testing the same combination of the drugs sorafenib and pemetrexed in patients with recurrent or metastatic triple negative breast cancer is now open at Massey.

“Though phase 1 studies are designed to evaluate the safety of a new therapy, we had strong preclinical evidence suggesting this novel drug combination could work against a variety of cancers, so we hoped that we would see a response in our patients in this early phase trial,” said Andrew Poklepovic, M.D. (H.S.’07/M), lead investigator on the study. “With this trial, we established a safe dosing schedule, and we will now be testing the efficacy of the therapy in the phase 2 study.”

The results of the clinical trial were recently published online by the journal Oncotarget (PMID: 27213589). The study enrolled 37 patients between October 2011 and December 2014. Of those patients, 36 received treatment and 33 were evaluated for response. One patient had a complete response, meaning all detectable traces of the tumor disappeared, while four patients had a partial response, which means that the tumor volume shrank by at least 30 percent. The therapy stabilized disease progression in an additional 15 patients, with some of these patients responding for up to a year. The therapy was found to be particularly active in breast cancer patients.

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Massey Cancer Center’s Research for Life campaign exceeds its fundraising goal

The School of Medicine's McGlothlin Medical Education Building, where Research for Life funds established the Massey Research Pavilion. Photo by David Hale.

The School of Medicine’s McGlothlin Medical Education Building, where Research for Life funds established the Massey Research Pavilion. Photo by David Hale.

“Research is the best hope for saving and improving lives of cancer patients. Massey has a solid foundation, but we need to broaden and deepen our research operations,” said Gordon Ginder, M.D., director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center and Lipman Chair in Oncology, at the kickoff of the public phase of the Research for Life campaign in 2013.

Research for Life, which officially started July 1, 2007, and finished June 30, 2015, raised more than $108 million, having exceeded its goal of $100 million in December 2014.

“The philanthropy of our community and region has been truly phenomenal,” said Becky Massey, who co-chaired the campaign with retired Richmond banker C.T. Hill. “We are extremely grateful to all the individuals, corporations and foundations who contributed enormously to ensuring success for this campaign.”

People, places and programs

At the outset of the Research for Life Campaign, Massey identified “people, places and programs” as its three priorities for fundraising. These areas would facilitate the swift progression of research, improving Massey’s ability to extend and save the lives of people affected by cancer.

“The ‘people’ part was about the retention and recruitment of excellent physicians and scientists,” Massey said. “The goal was to recruit up to 35 new, accomplished researchers and faculty members.”

These additions, along with the cancer center’s existing team, would be charged with maximizing its capacity to pursue groundbreaking scientific concepts, lead translational research and implement clinical trials.

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VCU will honor distinguished faculty

Featured photo

Virginia Commonwealth University will recognize distinguished faculty during the 33rd annual Opening Faculty Address and Convocation.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., and Gail Hackett, Ph.D., provost and vice president for academic affairs, will preside over the ceremony, which takes place at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 18, at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Ave. A reception will follow the ceremony.

Awards will be presented to four faculty members who have distinguished themselves and the university through their commitment to excellence, service, teaching and scholarship: Gordon Ginder, M.D., Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D., Sally Hunnicutt, Ph.D., and Ananda Pandurangi, M.D.

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Gordon Ginder, M.D.

Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D.

Sally Hunnicutt, Ph.D.








Ananda Pandurangi, M.D.









Novel model developed to predict nicotine emitted from e-cigarettes

Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D., professor in the VCU Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences

Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center researchers at the VCU Center for the Study of Tobacco Products (CSTP) have developed the first-ever, evidence-based model that can predict with up to 90 percent accuracy the amount of nicotine emitted by an electronic cigarette. The study was published in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research.

The researchers, working in collaboration with investigators at the American University of Beirut, collected data about the voltage and other characteristics of various e-cigarette devices, the concentration of the liquid nicotine that could be put in the devices, and the length of time a user might inhale from the device in one puff. The team then developed a mathematical model to determine how much nicotine was emitted from the devices as the device voltage and the nicotine liquid concentration were increased and the user puff duration was extended. The model predicted that higher voltage e-cigarette devices paired with high-concentration nicotine liquids could emit greater levels of the addictive substance than those of a traditional tobacco cigarette, depending on user puff duration.

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Researchers find link between cancer gene and obesity

Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center researchers have discovered that a gene known to cause cancer also may play a role in determining if someone becomes obese.

Recent discoveries suggest that the gene Astrocyte elevated gene-1 (AEG-1) could even be controlled with certain therapies to prevent or reverse obesity and obesity-related cancers.

“This is a completely new function of AEG-1, and we did not expect this,” said Devanand Sarkar, Ph.D., Harrison Endowed Scholar in Cancer Research and member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center, associate professor in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics at the VCU School of Medicine and member of the VCU Institute of Molecular Medicine.

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