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CRI research in liver cancer, tissue regeneration garners Stand Up To Cancer Grant

Dr. Hao Zhu, an Assistant Professor at the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern (CRI), is one of 10 researchers in the nation to receive a Stand Up To Cancer grant to further his studies of a gene whose absence protects mice against liver cancer and promotes liver tissue regeneration in mammals.

Stand Up To Cancer announced the $750,000 grant – awarded to early-career scientists to support innovative, high-risk, high-reward projects in cancer research – at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research. Stand Up To Cancer raises funds to accelerate the pace of research to get new therapies to patients quickly.

“I am extremely fortunate to have been awarded this Stand Up To Cancer grant, which will allow my laboratory to test high-risk ideas that may make an impact on liver cancer, an otherwise devastating disease,” said Dr. Zhu, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center, whose lab is working to understand the mechanisms shared by cancer and organ regeneration.

In mammals, there is a strong association of cancer with chronic damage to the skin, intestine, and liver. Dr. Zhu’s work focuses on a gene called Arid1a, which has been associated with cancer. In a study recently published in Cell Stem Cell, Dr. Zhu found that genetic deletion of Arid1a in mice profoundly increases the healing capacity of the liver after injury without increasing cancer. Deletion of this gene protected mice against liver cancer.

His research aims to understand the relationship between injury, regeneration, and cancer and more specifically to investigate Arid1a, and its related biological pathways, as new therapeutic targets in tissue repair and cancer. The hypothesis of the Stand Up To Cancer project is that blocking regeneration by suppressing genes like Arid1a will promote tissue regeneration and prevent or delay carcinogenesis.

The projects are characterized as “high-risk” because they challenge existing paradigms, utilize novel concepts or approaches, and because applicants are not required—as they would be by most conventional funding mechanisms—to have already conducted a portion of the research resulting in an established base of evidence. If successful, the projects have the potential for “high-reward” in terms of saving lives.

“Dr. Zhu’s research is providing important new insights into cancer biology. His drive to translate his findings to patients and his collaborative approach to science make him a valued member of Children’s Research Institute. We are proud that the grant from Stand Up To Cancer will further his important work.” said Dr. Sean Morrison, CRI Director, Professor of Pediatrics at UT Southwestern, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. Dr. Morrison holds the Mary McDermott Cook Chair in Pediatric Genetics.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports that liver cancer deaths increased at the highest rate of all common cancers from 2003-2012. In addition to cirrhosis, risk factors for liver cancer include infections caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), liver damage from alcohol or other toxins, chronic liver disease, and certain rare genetic disorders.

Dr. Zhu, a CPRIT Scholar in Cancer Research and member of UT Southwestern’s Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, was selected for the Stand Up To Cancer grant from among 250 applicants. He is the second UT Southwestern faculty member to be awarded a grant from the organization. In 2011, Dr. Angelique Whitehurst, Assistant Professor in the Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center and Pharmacology, was awarded a Stand Up To Cancer grant for her work to characterize the mechanisms that permit uncontrolled growth of tumor cells.

The Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in North Texas and one of just 45 NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the nation. The Simmons Cancer Center includes 13 major cancer care programs with a focus on treating the whole patient with innovative treatments, while fostering groundbreaking basic research that has the potential to improve patient care and prevention of cancer worldwide. In addition, the Center’s education and training programs support and develop the next generation of cancer researchers and clinicians.

About CRI

Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern (CRI) is a joint venture established in 2011 to build upon the internationally recognized scientific excellence of UT Southwestern Medical Center and the comprehensive clinical expertise of Children’s Medical Center, the flagship hospital of Children’s HealthSM. CRI’s mission is to perform transformative biomedical research to better understand the biological basis of disease, seeking breakthroughs that can change scientific fields and yield new strategies for treating disease. Located in Dallas, Texas, CRI is creating interdisciplinary groups of exceptional scientists and physicians to pursue research at the interface of regenerative medicine, cancer biology and metabolism, fields that hold uncommon potential for advancing science and medicine. More information about CRI is available on its website: cri.utsw.edu.

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