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Grant Bolsters Struggle Against Common Cancers

by Craig Boerner

The Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) is receiving $3 million from the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation over the next three years in an aggressive attempt to combat cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract, which collectively represent the nation's leading category of cancer deaths.

  Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D.; photo by Dana Johnson
  Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., said funds like those from the Kleberg Foundation are crucial to advancing cancer research

Upper aerodigestive tract cancers kill more than three times as many men as prostate cancer, twice as many women as breast cancer, and twice as many men and women as colon cancer, yet funding continues to go predominantly to breast and prostate cancer research, where five-year survival rates are now at 88 percent and 99 percent respectively.

Cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract include mouth, larynx, pharynx (throat), thyroid, salivary glands, lung and esophagus. While the majority of these cancers are typically associated with the use of tobacco products, Vanderbilt researchers note that stopping all tobacco use would not eliminate the problem.

“There is an increase in 'never-smokers' getting these cancers,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., VICC's associate director for Basic/Translational Research.

“I think the Kleberg Foundation found this to be a very attractive area to fund as it is underserved and underfunded. This is also an area where we have a collective expertise at Vanderbilt, from the clinical care to the cutting edge technologies at the bench.”

The American Cancer Society estimates 225,000 new cases and 185,000 deaths from upper aerodigestive cancers in the next year.

Most patients have advanced cancers in their upper aerodigestive tract by the time their disease is discovered and, as a result, only 20 percent live longer than five years following diagnosis.

“We intend to use these newly awarded Kleberg funds to accelerate research in the area of early detection as well as tumor behavior and targeted therapy, with the intent of realizing the most significant return — reduced suffering from cancer and saved lives,” Pietenpol said.

The Kleberg Foundation has been crucial in supporting cancer research over the past decade, according to VICC Director Ray DuBois, M.D., Ph.D. Vanderbilt has received a total of four philanthropic gifts from the foundation, with previous monies helping to establish the Robert and Helen Kleberg Center for Cancer Genetics and Genomics in Nashville, and the most recent gift aimed at accelerating research.

“We are committed to bringing together the best and brightest scientists, clinicians and caregivers in a global effort to alleviate suffering from cancer through pioneering research, compassionate care, prevention, education and outreach,” DuBois said. “Our partnership with the Kleberg Foundation will greatly accelerate our ability to achieve these lofty goals."

Pietenpol said that past Kleberg funding has been used to help recruit the best and brightest to Vanderbilt and allowed VICC investigators to more expediently analyze tumor tissue and correlate molecular features with clinical outcomes using state-of-the-art microarray and proteomics technologies.

“We are very grateful for this continuing support from the Kleberg Foundation, as it enables us to continue to fund and achieve rapid discoveries in the high-risk, high-impact areas of cancer research,” she said.

“Our return on previous Kleberg Foundation support has been outstanding. We have made seminal discoveries that have provided important insight into the molecular mechanisms of cancer and have successfully leveraged past funds with other philanthropic and institutional support for a greater than 12-fold return from the NIH, DOD, ACS, and other private foundations.”