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UT Austin Cancer Prevention, Screening & Research Programs Expanding With CPRIT Support

March 4, 2024

AUSTIN, Texas — Patients across Texas stand to benefit from expanded breast and lung cancer detection and screening, research on HPV self-testing, and potential new cancer therapies as a result of several awards from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to advance the work of research teams at The University of Texas at Austin.

“The support from CPRIT is transformational because it ensures that our world-class cancer researchers have access to the resources they need to advance innovative approaches to prevent, treat and cure cancer,” said Dan Jaffe, vice president for research at UT Austin. “The discoveries made here at the University are helping to drive better clinical care and extend the lives of cancer patients in Texas, the nation and beyond.”

Photos of five recipients of CPRIT grants

Top row, from left to right: Lauren Ehrlich, Ph.D., Jessica Calderon-Mora, DrPH, Yi Lu, Ph.D. Bottom row, from left to right: Navkiran “Kiran” Shokar, M.D., Brandon Altillo, M.D.

CPRIT, which represents the largest public state commitment to cancer research by any U.S. state, has to date awarded more than $140 million dollars in grants to UT Austin through its academic research, prevention and product development research programs. This most recent round of grants will award $8.3 million to five projects.

Breast Cancer Early Detection Program to Combat Screening Barriers

A $2 million grant will expand Advancing Breast Health in Central Texas, a breast cancer screening and early detection program currently serving patients in nine counties who face socioeconomic challenges, high cancer rates and limited access to care, especially among rural, minority and low-income populations. The program includes partners such as the federally qualified health center Lone Star Circle of Care and the Addressing Cancer Together coalition, and offers fixed-site and mobile mammography screening options and support for navigation, no-cost screening and diagnostic testing, and linkage to necessary treatment for uninsured and underinsured women.

“The project was designed to comprehensively address significant barriers to breast cancer screening and integrates education and community-based outreach approaches to reach more women across Texas,” said Navkiran “Kiran” Shokar, M.D., the program lead and a professor and chair of the Department of Population Health at Dell Medical School.

CPRIT funds will be used to expand services to more counties and extend the network of clinical and community partners to serve populations experiencing disparities. The team also plans to increase mobile mammography screening while adding 24 new fixed testing sites and more than a dozen new clinic referral sites.

HPV Screening Study to Test Self-Collection Methods Among Latinx Women

Unidos Contra el VPH, funded for $1.9 million by CPRIT, is an HPV self-collection study aiming to reduce the number of new cervical cancer cases and deaths by exploring screening options outside clinical settings, considering cultural and social barriers to traditional, in-clinic testing. The program will be implemented at Project Vida Health Center, an FQHC in El Paso, Texas, where cervical cancer screening rates are low and there are high rates of cervical cancer and deaths among Latinx women, specifically those residing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Barriers to screening in this population include cost, linguistic barriers and cultural values.

“The rates of cervical cancer screening are especially low along the U.S.-Mexico border, and it’s important that we learn more about nontraditional ways to help detect abnormal cells before they become cervical cancer,” said Jessica Calderon-Mora, DrPH, primary investigator on the project and assistant professor of population health at Dell Med. 

Expanding Smoking Cessation & Lung Cancer Screening

CPRIT also awarded $2 million to expand a smoking cessation and lung cancer screening program for vulnerable adults in Central Texas.

“Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in Central Texas, and smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths and the strongest risk factor for lung cancer,” said Brandon Altillo, M.D., director of the program and assistant professor of internal medicine and population health at Dell Med. “There is a critical need for more effective delivery of intensive smoking cessation counseling and lung cancer screening using low-dose CT scans in this region, particularly among underinsured and vulnerable patients.”

The award builds on a successful program launched with CPRIT funding and in partnership with CommUnityCare (an FQHC) and UT Health Austin, the clinical practice of Dell Med. Additional funding will help expand services to Lone Star Circle of Care, increasing access to lung cancer screening for high-risk, eligible patients and including shared decision-making and navigation support for patients who may require additional testing. Intensive smoking cessation services, including prescription therapies to support quitting, will also be offered to patients who currently use tobacco.

This work supports further expansion of Dell Med’s Cancer Prevention and Control Research Program, a home for scientists who develop and implement collaborative, comprehensive, evidence-based strategies that reduce the burden of cancer among disproportionally affected populations. 

Exploring Innovative Therapies for Pediatric Cancers

With a focus on cancer in children and adolescents, $1.4 million in CPRIT funding will help to identify promising therapeutic targets for a form of the most common pediatric cancer, called T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, also known as T-ALL. 

“Current aggressive chemotherapies against T-ALL are very effective but have significant acute and long-term side effects,” said Lauren Ehrlich, Ph.D., the L. Leon Campbell, Ph.D. Distinguished Professor in Microbiology in UT’s College of Natural Sciences and a professor of oncology at Dell Med. “And if the leukemia is resistant to chemotherapy, the patient’s survival rate plummets.”

Ehrlich has previously shown that a group of cells in the body, called myeloid cells, provides signals that are critical to the survival of T-ALL cancer cells. Her latest research aims to comprehensively identify which subtypes of myeloid cells — and which specific cell signals they produce — support T-ALL cells in distinct organs. Her team will then test whether targeting these various forms of myeloid-mediated support can effectively treat previously untreatable T-ALL disease.

Investigating the Role of Iron in Cancer Therapies

With more than $1 million in CPRIT funding, Yi Lu, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Natural Sciences, will be researching the link between a potentially promising set of new cancer drugs in development and iron in the body. About a decade ago, scientists discovered a process called ferroptosis that involves iron, lipids and oxygen.

“Because ferroptosis can lead to cell death, cancer drugs are being developed to leverage this process to kill cancer cells, including those cancers that are very difficult to treat, such as triple-negative breast cancer,” Lu said. “But scientists have only limited knowledge about how ferroptosis works, particularly the role of iron in the process.”

Lu and his team will use a new type of DNA-based sensor they developed to track variations in iron and oxygen levels in ferroptosis as it takes place in cell cultures and animal models. The research could lead to better-designed and more targeted drugs for cancer therapy and thus can unlock the full potential of ferroptosis in fighting cancer.