UF Health Cancer Center awards three pilot grants

By Ian Bennett

The University of Florida Health Cancer Center has selected three researchers to receive 2022 Shared Resource Pilot and Exploratory Study Awards.

Matthew Sarkisian, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of neuroscience; Luisel Ricks-Santi, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of pharmacotherapy and translational research; and Blanka Sharma, Ph.D., associate professor and J. Crayton Pruitt Family Term Fellow in the department of biomedical engineering, were selected to receive this year’s awards.

These projects are designed to collect preliminary data required to test novel ideas with the goal of creating a foundation for larger studies. Each year, the projects are focused on a specific issue in cancer research. This year’s projects focused on creating novel methodologies or innovative ways to use shared resources at the Cancer Center.

Applicants are required to include at least one Cancer Center member, but faculty at all stages are welcome to apply each year.

“Our shared resources play a critical role in accelerating novel discoveries in basic, translational and clinical cancer research,” said Steven Madore, Ph.D., associate director for science of the UF Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research and associate director for shared resources at the Cancer Center. “This exciting new pilot program will provide our members with funding for very focused experimental aims and will provide preliminary data to help guide future research and support subsequent grant submissions.”

Blanka Sharma, Ph.D.

Sharma’s research seeks to understand the role of specific immune cells and inflammatory mechanisms in driving degenerative diseases and tumor progression with the goal of developing targeted therapies for regenerative medicine and cancer.

Despite advances in treatments and immunotherapies, lung cancer continues to have one of the highest mortality rates of all cancers. Newer ways of modeling lung cancer tumors for preclinical research could be less costly and faster, but they lack the full set of characteristics of human disease. Through her pilot project, Sharma will use the Gene Expression and Genotyping Core and the Biostatistics and Computational Biology Shared Resources at the Cancer Center to study an in vitro 3D hydrogel system that could offer the control and reproducibility needed to advance lung tumor research.

Sarkisian studies the cellular and molecular mechanisms that promote normal and abnormal development of the cerebral cortex. Through his pilot project, he will research immune cell and tumor cilia interactions in glioblastoma, the most common and lethal form of brain cancer in adults.

Matthew Sarkisian, Ph.D.

His project seeks to increase understanding of immune cell interactions with ciliated tumor cells. The team will also examine the physical interactions and molecular changes of human T cells and myeloid-derived suppressor cells. Support from the Pilot and Exploratory Study Award will help the team access a combination of shared resources, including Flow Cytometry and Confocal Microscopy Core and NextGen DNA Sequencing Core to shed light on the ability of ciliated tumor cells to evade targeting by the immune system or immunotherapy.

Ricks-Santi, a cancer genomics researcher, studies the genetic drivers of cancer disparities with a focus on breast and prostate cancer in the African American community. Her pilot project will focus on identifying genetic markers for proton radiation responses in African American men who have been treated for prostate cancer.

Dr. Ricks-Santi
Luisel Ricks-Santi, Ph.D.

Radiotherapy is a common treatment for prostate cancer. For some survivors, toxicity and adverse events can persist for years after treatment. Although some studies have shown that genetic differences can be linked to these adverse outcomes, none of these studies have had adequate representation of African American men, who appear to suffer more side effects after treatment.

UF Health has one of the few proton therapy institutes in the country, located at UF Health Jacksonville. Through her pilot project, Ricks-Santi will gain access to data from the institute to determine whether genetic variants identified in previous studies could also predict adverse responses in African American men.

The UF Health Cancer Center’s pilot grant program receives crucial support from the state of Florida through the Casey DeSantis Cancer Research Act (Fla. Stat. § 381.915).

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