Two scientists at Wake Forest Baptist awarded $1.5 million for cancer research

February 27, 2020

Two scientists from Wake Forest School of Medicine, part of Wake Forest Baptist Health, have received a total of $1.5 million in research funding from the American Cancer Society (ACS) to study new chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatments for cancer. 

One of the grants, for $792,000 over four years, was awarded to Yong Lu, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, to study a new approach to immunotherapy for metastatic and treatment-resistant cancers. 

Using specialized white blood cells or T cells that he discovered, Lu and his research team will determine if the administration of these blood cells can eradicate advanced tumors and prevent recurrence of resistant tumors in an animal model. 

Cancer recurrence may cause cancer treatment failure and death in more than 90% of patients with advanced tumors, especially with metastatic disease, which often develops resistance to the initial treatments, Lu said. 

“We hope our work will shed light on the mechanisms underlying how T cells, the major type of white blood cells, prevent resistance and hopefully establish a foundation for translating that into more effective immunotherapies in human cancers,” Lu said.

The second grant, for $782,000 over four years, was awarded to David Soto-Pantoja, Ph.D., assistant professor of surgery and cancer biology

The grant will support his team’s efforts to create preclinical models to study cardiotoxicity – damage to the heart muscle – that results from some chemotherapy and immunotherapy drugs. 

“In the next 10 to 15 years, there will be 20 million cancer survivors in the U.S. thanks to newer cancer drugs that are very effective,” Soto-Pantoja said. “Unfortunately, many of these drugs have other side effects such as heart disease that can occur many years after treatment.”

Soto-Pantoja’s goal is to better understand how chemotherapy drugs can affect the heart and develop strategies to prevent future development of cardiac diseases, as well as to find new treatments for those patients who have already developed heart disease. 

For example, when he was a fellow at the National Institutes of Health prior to coming to Wake Forest Baptist, his team identified a molecule present on cells that when blocked prevents some of the damage caused by chemotherapy drugs. 

“The molecule enhanced the immune system to attack the tumor but protected normal tissue from the negative effects of chemotherapy,” Soto-Pantoja said. 

This grant will support his continued efforts to understand how this molecule works and hopefully lead to a new approach to cancer therapy.

Media Contact:

Marguerite Beck, marbeck@wakehealth.edu336-716-2415