Wake Forest University School of Medicine Receives $2.7 Million Grant from National Cancer Institute to Study Lung Cancer Disparities

April 19, 2023

Wake Forest University School of Medicine has been awarded a five-year, $2.7 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to investigate lung cancer health disparities.
Researchers will focus on developing novel treatments that target genetic, immunologic, and metabolic changes that disproportionally affect Black patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Previous research by Wake Forest University School of Medicine has shown that the tumor tissues of Black patients previously untreated for NSCLC contain more “tired” and less robust immune T cells and altered redox—the reaction that occurs when sugar and fat are broken down in the body—and fatty acid metabolism. These molecular events make it less likely to kill cancer cells than for white patients by conventional therapeutic approaches.

Recent studies have also shown that Black NSCLC patients respond better than white patients to certain immune checkpoint blockade (ICB) drugs that allow T cells to better kill cancer cells, although resistance to these drugs can occur over time. The Wake Forest University School of Medicine team believes that the effectiveness of these drugs can be increased by combining them with other targeted therapies. 

“With the grant, our research team will produce high-resolution tumor profiles, develop supporting data to link genomics to metabolism and generate pre-clinical data to show how certain inhibitors can reshape the tumor environment and improve ICB response,” said Wei Zhang, Ph.D., the Hanes and Willis Family professor in cancer and director of cancer genomics and precision oncology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and the study’s principal investigator. 

Results will help guide future studies and potential clinical trials to help reduce cancer disparities and to achieve treatment equity.

“Our team has a great opportunity to learn more about the body’s immune responses, while potentially improving outcomes for our Black patients and reducing cancer health disparities across our region and the nation,” said Ruben A. Mesa, M.D., president of the Atrium Health cancer service line, executive director of Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist’s NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center and vice dean for cancer programs at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. “We are thankful for this NCI funding that supports our efforts to reduce the cancer burden and achieve health equity in North Carolina and beyond.”

Lung cancer is the most frequent cancer diagnosis at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, with Black people accounting for 14% of the patients. Additionally, epidemiologic data collected by the Wake Forest Baptist’s Office of Cancer Health Equity show that Black patients in the region have lung cancer incidence and mortality rates 15% higher than rates among Black patients in the U.S.

This study will be co-directed by Cristina Furdui, Ph.D., professor of molecular medicine and co-director of Wake Forest University School of Medicine’s Center for Redox Biology and Medicine, and Liang Liu, Ph.D., assistant professor of cancer biology

Media Contact: Myra Wright, mgwright@wakehealth.edu