The University of Wisconsin Head and Neck SPORE Grant recently awarded pilot funding to nine UW School of Medicine and Public Health researchers for new projects.

The University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center was awarded the overall $12 million Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant from the National Cancer Institute to improve treatments and outcomes for head and neck cancer patients. It has four main research areas, but also included money to fund some innovative projects by junior faculty.

“These pilot awards help us to grow the next generation of cancer researchers here at Wisconsin,’’ says Dr. Paul Harari, chairman of human ecology and leader of the SPORE program. “These projects will help us bring life-saving therapies from the lab to our patients.”

The SPORE’s Career Enhancement Program, which helps early-career investigators develop translational head and neck cancer research projects, is funding these efforts:

  • Dr. Andrew Baschnagel, assistant professor of human oncology, received $25,000 to study strategies to enhance the effects of radiation in treating H&N squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). This project will focus on fibroblast growth factor receptors (FGFR) — a family of four transmembrane receptor tyrosine kinases that play a role in tumor progression and invasion. In preliminary studies, Baschnagel has shown that inhibiting FGFR leads to an enhanced radiation effect in an HNSCC animal model. This project will use in vitro and in vivo experiments to build on these preliminary findings.
  • Dr. Anthony Gitter, assistant professor of biostatistics and medical informatics, received $50,000 to advance efforts in the genomic profiling of head and neck cancers. He will develop computational tools to reveal specific mechanisms driving individual tumors as well as larger functional principles and pathway alterations across different types of H&N cancer. Through this project, Gitter hopes to advance the use genomic profiling to help design more personalized therapies.
  • Dr. Zachary Morris, assistant professor of human oncology, received $50,000 for a study of the combined use of radiation and immunotherapies to trigger a systemic anti-tumor immune response to treat head and neck cancer. He will develop mouse models that will enable him to study the combined effects of radiation therapy, a tumor-specific antibody and a T cell checkpoint blockade.
  • Dr. John Russell, associate scientist in the department of surgery, received $25,000 to study how chemoradiation (CRT) can affect tongue muscles, which can result in swallowing abnormalities. Understanding the underlying causes of swallowing abnormalities in individuals who have received CRT could enable better methods to limit and rehabilitate this effect.
  • Dr. Matthew Witek, assistant professor of human oncology, received $50,000 to study the use of intra-treatment PET-MRI to help predict response to chemoradiation therapy for patients with oropharyngeal squamous-cell carcinoma. Being able to predict ultimate response could enable radiation dose de-escalation to reduce side effects while maintaining favorable overall response to treatment.

The following researchers received pilot funding through the SPORE’s Developmental Research Program, which encourages experienced investigators to collaborate on head and neck cancer research:

  • Dr. David Beebe, professor of biomedical engineering, received $50,000 to develop a model of the lymphatic system and investigate head and neck cancer metastasis. Understanding the underlying biological mechanisms of lymphatic spread of head and neck cancer could stimulate new therapeutic options and improve patient outcomes.
  • Dr. Tabassum Kennedy, associate professor of radiology, received $50,000 to develop a picture archiving and communication system as a shared resource for head and neck SPORE investigators. This system is intended to improve operational research efficiency, ensure easy access of data, enable greater connections between animal and human subject research and support the translational mission of the SPORE.
  • Dr. Randal Tibbetts, professor of human oncology, received $50,000 to investigate whether alternative splicing of Rap1-interacting factor (RIF1), which plays key roles in DNA double-strand break repair and DNA replication, influences chemoirradiation response of H&N cancer.
  • Dr. Beth Weaver, associate professor of cell and regenerative biology, received $50,000 to study the role of chromosomal instability (CIN) — the recurrent gain and loss of whole chromosomes — in the response of H&N cancers to radiation. Human papillomavirus (HPV)-positive H&N cancers have low CIN and substantially better treatment response rates than do HPV-negative head and neck cancers. This study will investigate whether HPV-16 induces CIN in head and neck cancer. It will provide a potential explanation for the better treatment response of HPV-positive head and neck cancer. It will also test the hypothesis that a preexisting low rate of CIN sensitizes H&N cancers to radiation.

The SPORE is a five-year, $12 million grant from the National Cancer Institute (with an additional $3 million in matching funds from the university) to conduct translational research focused on improving treatment and outcomes for head and neck cancer patients.