Florida Cancer Innovation Fund awards to propel novel UF Health Cancer Center research

Six UF Health Cancer Center researchers have received funding from the Florida Cancer Innovation Fund for research projects that promote cancer innovation, research and lifesaving care for patients in Florida.

The projects range from small-molecule drug discovery for novel cancer therapeutics to community outreach efforts for breast cancer screening.

“These awards reflect the breadth and depth of cancer research expertise at the University of Florida and the opportunity to implement our work to decrease the burden cancer places on the residents of the state of Florida,” said Jonathan D. Licht, M.D., director of the UF Health Cancer Center.  

Learn more about the research projects below.

Enhancing Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment Through Innovative Glycan-Specific Protein Engineering

Yousong Ding, Ph.D.

Yousong Ding, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of medicinal chemistry in the UF College of Pharmacy, received $213,000 to study how creating proteins that target a carbohydrate antigen associated with tumors can aid precisely targeted cancer diagnosis and treatment. 

“Tumor-associated carbohydrate antigens present promising avenues for diagnostic innovation and therapeutic intervention, but existing detection and targeting agents demonstrate considerable limitations,” Ding said. “Our project aims to create glycan-binding proteins uniquely designed to target one tumor-associated carbohydrate antigen, Globo H, thereby opening new opportunities for tackling a vital shortfall in cancer care.” 

Globo H is overexpressed in several malignancies, including breast, prostate, colon and ovarian cancers. Ding is collaborating with Yanjun Li, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of medicinal chemistry in the College of Pharmacy who is also part of the UF AI Initiative.

Developing Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Approaches to Identify and Optimize Small Molecule Medicines Targeting Oncogenic RNAs

Jessica Childs-Disney, Ph.D.

Jessica Childs-Disney, Ph.D., a research assistant professor at The Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology, received a $750,000 grant for a study that will use artificial intelligence to advance small-molecule drug discovery. Genome-wide association studies have identified genes linked to cancer, yet 85% of the proteins they encode are unsuitable for drug binding. 

“We propose a novel strategy to address these undruggable proteins by targeting the RNAs that encode them or regulate their expression,” Disney said. “Our world-class drug discovery team, specializing in RNA chemical biology and AI-based drug design, will pioneer a platform to treat the root causes of many cancers for novel therapeutics.”  

The team aims to create user-friendly, cloud-based AI tools to expand their research to the broader academic cancer research community. The team is targeting triple negative breast cancer but hopes the pipeline would be broadly applicable to other types of cancers, as well as cancer-causing RNAs. 

Disney is collaborating with Matthew Disney, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of chemistry at The Wertheim UF Scripps Institute, as well as Chenglong Li, Ph.D., a professor and the Nicholas Bodor Professor in Drug Discovery, and Yanjun Li, Ph.D., an assistant professor, both in the department of medicinal chemistry in the UF College of Pharmacy.

Using Plasma DNA Concentration [DNA] for Early Detection of Treatment Response and Resistance

Paul Okunieff, M.D.

Paul Okunieff, M.D., professor and chair of the department of radiation oncology in the UF College of Medicine, received a $1 million grant to study a plasma biomarker for the early detection of cancer treatment response and resistance. The plasma biomarker, developed by UF Health physicians, will provide quantitative information, allowing physicians to deliver safer and more effective treatments. The test has utility for most tumor sites and is independent of genetics and race. 

“The innovation award will allow my team in radiation oncology, along with researchers and patient advocates in the Florida-California Health Equity Center (CaRE2) and at Florida A&M University, to begin to answer fundamental questions asked by most every cancer patient, such as: ‘Doctor, how do you know the treatment is working? And, ‘Doctor, how do you know the treatment is still working?’” Okunieff said. “This will be deployed throughout the state, and performance of the test will be evaluated to determine its benefits.” 

Unleashing the Power of mRNA for Treatment of Malignant Brain Tumors Using Novel Vaccine Construct

Maryam Rahman
Maryam Rahman, M.D.

Maryam Rahman, M.D., received a $738,000 grant for preclinical testing of a novel cancer vaccine to treat malignant brain tumors. With a median survival of less than 15 months, glioblastoma is the most common and deadliest primary malignant brain tumor in adults and is notoriously treatment resistant.  

Immunotherapy to treat glioblastoma has had limited efficacy due to significant heterogeneity within tumors and immunosuppression. Rahman will investigate mechanisms underlying an mRNA vaccine developed in the laboratory that addresses tumor heterogeneity and overcomes immunosuppression.

Phase I Study of NP-101 in Patients with Unresectable Hepatocellular Carcinoma Undergoing Y-90 Treatment

Ilyas Sahin, M.D.

Ilyas Sahin, M.D., a clinical assistant profession in the division of hematology and oncology in the UF College of Medicine, received a $252,000 grant to evaluate the safety and tolerability of NP-101, a Nigella Sativa-derived immune-modulatory compound, in patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) through a single-arm Phase 1 clinical trial. The primary goal is to determine the maximum tolerated dose or recommended phase 2 dose for HCC treatment.

The study also aims to assess the preliminary efficacy of NP-101 in the treatment of HCC by evaluating key markers of efficacy, including local and distant response durations and progression-free survival metrics. The study seeks to provide insights into the therapeutic potential of NP-101 in improving patient outcomes. In addition, the study will explore the immunological mechanisms underlying NP-101’s effects on HCC by conducting in-depth tissue and blood immune monitoring.

Northwest Florida Public Health Collaborative to Reduce Breast Cancer Disparities

Ramzi Salloum, Ph.D.

The UF Health Cancer Center Office of Community Outreach and Engagement received $115,000 to partner on a collaborative project funded through the Cancer Innovation Fund to increase access to breast cancer screenings in rural areas of the Panhandle. The Florida university consortium, which includes the University of West Florida, Florida A&M University and the University of Miami, aims to enhance early detection among rural women who would otherwise not receive preventative care, increasing their risk of death. 

To overcome the challenges to screening and access to breast cancer treatment, the team will train and develop a group of community health workers to provide screening education. The team will also conduct community breast cancer screenings using mobile mammogram services through regional partners.   

“This project builds on our innovative efforts to reduce breast cancer mortality through early detection and empower residents of the communities we serve through screening education,” said Ramzi Salloum, Ph.D., associate director for community outreach and engagement at the UF Health Cancer Center. 

Research at the UF Health Cancer Center receives crucial support from the Casey DeSantis Cancer Research Act (Fla. Stat. § 381.915). 

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