Hollings awards pilot project funding to jumpstart cancer research projects

February 13, 2023
close-up image of a microscope
MUSC Hollings Cancer Center awarded pilot grants to researchers to begin new projects in cancer research. Image by Adobe Stock

MUSC Hollings Cancer Center announced two grants to Hollings researchers to develop preliminary information for pressing problems in cancer care.

The Team Science Award and the Pre-Clinical and Clinical Concepts Award are intended to fund pilot projects so that researchers can gather enough information to apply for larger grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Fundraising efforts like LOWVELO, Hollings’ annual cycling event, help to make these grants possible, and the ideas that they fund are often for areas of cancer research that are going unaddressed. This round of grants is funding research into early liver cancer and the best approach to treatment for depression for people with likely incurable cancer.

Pre-Clinical and Clinical Concepts Award: Unmet psychosocial needs of people living with likely incurable cancer

Hollings researchers Evan Graboyes, M.D., and Jennifer Dahne, Ph.D., will conduct a randomized trial to see how a self-guided digital mental health intervention works for people with likely incurable cancer, compared with how well standard existing treatments work.

There is a growing population of people living with likely incurable cancer, the researchers note, and their needs are different from other cancer survivors, particularly when it comes to mental health. About half of the people with likely incurable cancer report depressive symptoms.

Graboyes, a head and neck cancer surgeon, has conducted other trials looking at mental health interventions specifically for head and neck cancer patients.

Dahne, a clinical psychologist, previously developed a self-guided behavioral activation mobile app that was aimed at people identified through their primary care provider as having depressive symptoms. A small number of the people identified through primary care were also cancer survivors, and the researchers believe this type of mental health intervention, offered through a mobile app, could be effective for people with likely incurable cancer.

Identifying this subpopulation of cancer survivors with likely incurable cancer in the electronic health record is the first challenge the researchers will tackle with this grant. The health record doesn’t have a code for the likely incurable cancer status; instead, the information would be in free text areas of the record. For this pilot trial, Graboyes, Dahne and the rest of the team will manually comb through records to see if they can come up with a way to automate a search for people with likely incurable cancer and depression.

The second goal of the trial will be to determine whether using an app for treatment of depression is feasible and whether people are willing to use it. The researchers also expect to get some preliminary data on how effective it is compared with treatment as usual.

Team Science Award: Spatial omics in early liver cancer

Worldwide, liver cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death. In the United States, rates of liver cancer have more than tripled since 1980, according to the American Cancer Society. Rates are projected to increase, said Hollings researchers Peggi Angel, Ph.D., Richard Drake, Ph.D., and Anand Mehta, D.Phil., because of the increase in rates of obesity.

Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is a type of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease that is caused by a buildup of fat in the liver. It’s associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. NASH can cause liver inflammation and damage, which can become cirrhosis and then can develop into liver cancer.

Overall, five-year survival rates for liver cancer are low. One of the primary treatments for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the main type of liver cancer, is surgery. This option works best when the cancer is found early, but few liver cancers are detected at an early stage.

Early detection relies heavily on scans, the researchers noted, “which are not suitable methods for the surveillance of the close to 100 million people at risk of developing HCC.”

Instead, they said, “noninvasive serum biomarkers are desperately needed to deal with this coming epidemic.”

However, what drives the development of this cancer is still poorly understood, the researchers said, and the macromolecular changes have been poorly defined.

In this team science project, they will use new methods developed here at MUSC to look for the molecular changes that happen early in the development of liver cancer. Spatial omics refers to technologies that allow for the overlaying of omics data, such as genomics and epigenomics, onto tissue images.

Not only will this help to provide better understanding of microenvironmental influencers, but it could identify biomarkers that could be used to determine who is most at risk of developing liver cancer and how best to tailor their treatments once diagnosed.