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Director receives grant, research center nationally recognized

The cancer research using biomarkers under way at The University of Toledo has led to prestigious recognition for faculty researchers and the institution.

Dr. James Willey worked on his cancer research with biomarkers.

Dr. James Willey worked on his cancer research with biomarkers.

The Ohio Board of Regents has recognized the research with a “Center of Excellence” designation — the Center for Excellence in Biomarker Research and Individualized Medicine.

Dr. James Willey, professor and director of the UT Cancer Research Center, has played a large part in the recognition with his work on cancer research using biomarkers. Within the past two years, Willey has been awarded more than $2 million in competitive grants from the National Cancer Institute for his research.

“The Center for Biomarker Research at UT was critical to our success in obtaining these grants and conducting the research the grants funded,” Willey said. “Experienced and dedicated staff contributed to both the preparation and the implementation of the project funded.”

Biomarkers are indicators that show a reliable, predictive correlation to patient responses, said Dr. Debra Gmerek, associate dean for research and director of the Jacobson Center for Clinical & Translational Research.

“Biomarkers are essential to the realization of the quest for truly personalized health care,” Gmerek said.

Willey’s work also recently was commended for his “unique, innovative and groundbreaking research” following a presentation titled “Implementation of Innovative RNA Sample Quality Control Methods” delivered at the 11th Principal Investigators’ Meeting for the National Cancer Institute-funded Innovative Molecular Analysis Technologies Program.

The biomarkers that Willey develops contribute to individualized medicine, which aims to guide selection of diagnostic tests and treatment options for each patient based on biomarkers.

With support from the Clinical Coordination Center, several well-known centers in the Midwest are participating in an important National Cancer Institute-funded individualized medicine study to validate a lung cancer risk test developed in Willey’s lab during the last 10 years. UT is in the process of enrolling several hundred subjects in the study that is to be completed in three years, Willey said.

While smoking is the primary preventable cause of lung cancer, there is a large genetic component to risk. This has particular importance now because another recent National Institutes of Health-sponsored study found that annual chest CT screening reduces lung cancer mortality by at least 20 percent. If validated, the lung cancer risk test will enable identification of the 10 to 15 percent of individuals who should be most closely monitored for lung cancer, thereby reducing the cost and increasing the effectiveness of the screening program, he said.

“The center’s vision is that UT will be a recognized leader in biomedical research with distinction in biomarker discovery and personalized medicine, thereby transforming health and biomedical science,” Gmerek said.

Researcher’s work could help stop breast cancer from spreading

Dr. Maria Diakonova prepared DNA probes from human breast cancer cells. The probes are used for polymerase chain reaction to test the expression of proteins that regulate cell motility and invasiveness.

Dr. Maria Diakonova prepared DNA probes from human breast cancer cells. The probes are used for polymerase chain reaction to test the expression of proteins that regulate cell motility and invasiveness.

The University of Toledo’s Department of Biological Sciences is receiving attention and funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for its breast cancer research.

Dr. Maria Diakonova, assistant professor of biological sciences, received the NIH Research Project Grant, which is more than $1.5 million during the next five years, for her work focused on determining why cancer cells move and what causes them to do so. She is basing her research on the hormone Prolactin, which causes cells to migrate and invade.

“Cancer cells move throughout the body, which is why surgery doesn’t always work,” Diakonova said. “If we can inhibit the cells from moving, we can also inhibit them from spreading, thus eventually making it possible to remove cancer cells by surgery alone.”

Dr. Douglas Leaman, professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, believes that Diakonova’s work was noticed and the grant was awarded because of the originality of the research.

“There are a lot of people doing breast cancer studies; however, very few people study the effect that Prolactin has on the crosstalk between these particular molecules, JAK2 and PAK1, which is what Dr. Diakonova is doing,” he said.

“Hormone Prolactin binds to the receptors on the cell surface and activates an intracellular protein called JAK2,” Diakonova explained. “We have recently shown that another protein, PAK1, is a novel substrate of JAK2. We showed that JAK2 binds to PAK1 and makes PAK1 more active. Activated PAK1 contributes to better cell migration and invasion. However, how these two proteins work together and the precise mechanism of their action is unknown.”

Diakonova’s lab currently consists of four graduate students and two undergraduate students; she also has connections with UT Medical Center. She hopes to some day work with surgeons to evaluate samples from patients in different stages of breast cancer.

“It’s beneficial to have access to cancer patients,” Leaman said. “We try to as quickly as possible take what we discover over to UTMC to see if it is relevant to their patients.”

While Diakonova’s findings might not turn into a cure for breast cancer, Leaman said, “Her studies may identify specific biomarkers that could make it easier to detect cancer cells with metastatic potential at an earlier stage or help doctors know that they need to look at these particular molecules during clinical evaluations.”

In addition to Diakonova’s grant, the Department of Biological Sciences has received numerous prestigious awards for its research in neurology, immunology, plant and developmental biology, Leaman said.

“I feel these awards are reflective of the many recent successes our department has had in answering important biological and medical questions,” he said.