Four Hollings researchers awarded American Cancer Society grants

January 13, 2022
cancer researcher piping samples in the lab
Funds from the American Cancer Society will help four Hollings researchers continue their work on promising cancer research projects. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

Four MUSC Hollings Cancer Center researchers received American Cancer Society Institutional Research Grants worth $35,000 each. The grants are awarded to researchers investigating promising projects that will push cancer care forward.

Dr. Caitlin Allen 

Caitlin Allen, Ph.D.

Hollings researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences

“KEEP IT (Keeping Each Other Engaged via IT): An Innovative Digital Literacy Training Program for Community Health Workers about Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer among Black Women”

Allen’s goal is to develop and launch a new training program for community health workers called Keeping Each other Engaged Program via IT (KEEP IT). KEEP IT is an innovative training for community health workers designed to build their competencies in using health IT tools to facilitate the identification of, screening for and access to genetic services for Black women who are at increased risk for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Previous studies show that Black women are much more likely to have the BRCA 1 or 2 mutation, making them 10 times more likely to develop breast or ovarian cancers. Despite the increased risk, this population often presents with disease at a more advanced state.

“Our hope is that this training program moves us closer to addressing cancer inequities and contributes toward the growing efforts in reducing disparities in access to precision medicine,” Allen said. “As the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in the state, Hollings has a responsibility to reduce the burden of cancer on all South Carolinians, no matter where they may live.”

Dr. Leonardo Ferreira 

Leonardo Ferreira, Ph.D.

Hollings researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology

“Repurposing Regulatory T-Cells for Cancer Control Using Chimeric Antigen Receptors”

Ferreira was awarded the grant for his work studying the role that the immune system plays in cancer development and progression. Ferreira’s project is focused on determining how the immune system identifies normal cells versus cancerous cells. His work looks at Tregs, which are regulatory T-cells that suppress immune responses. Tregs accumulate in tumor cells, warding off attack from the immune system. Ferreira hopes to develop more effective treatments that circumvent Tregs to allow the immune system to attack the cancer.

“It is really special that after a decade of studying how to build immune tolerance, my fresh perspective is being recognized as useful to break immune tolerance in cancer,” Ferreira said. “The next frontier in cancer immune cell therapy is treating solid tumors, and this grant will allow me to tackle it from a new angle that I hope will bear fruit.”

Dr. Natalie Saini 

Natalie Saini, Ph.D.

Hollings researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

“Understanding the Role of Persistent Inflammation in Driving Carcinogenesis”

Saini was recognized for her work studying systemic sclerosis, an immune-mediated multisystem disorder that causes widespread inflammation. Previous studies show patients with the disorder are at an increased risk of cancer development, but little is known about why that is the case. Saini’s study looks at human lung cells to compare healthy cells versus cancerous cells, with the hope of developing earlier ways to diagnose and treat lung cancer.

“This award will enable us to investigate the causes underlying DNA damage, mutagenesis and ultimately carcinogenesis in patients with systemic sclerosis,” Saini said. “This study will lay the foundation for developing precision diagnostics for patients with inflammatory diseases to determine their predisposition to cancer.”

Tracy Smith, Ph.D. 

Tracy Smith, Ph.D.

Hollings researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

“E-cigarettes as Harm Reduction Tools in Smokers who Fail to Quit with Traditional Methods”

The goal of Smith’s research is to understand whether current smokers who have failed to quit smoking with traditional methods would benefit from trying to switch completely to a less harmful product, like e-cigarettes. The proposed study will be one of the first trials in the United States to compare e-cigarettes directly to FDA-approved pharmacotherapy for smoking cessation. Smith hopes to show that e-cigarettes can provide a steppingstone for smokers on the pathway to quit altogether.

“I’m excited about pursuing this new line of work,” Smith said. “This project will provide novel information about how e-cigarettes compare to traditional FDA-approved pharmacotherapy for smoking cessation. If we can improve our smoking cessation efforts, more lives can be saved.”