October 20, 2022

The National Cancer Institute has awarded the UNC Lineberger Pancreatic Cancer Center of Excellence a five-year, $10.9 million Pancreatic Cancer Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant intended to further enhance treatment solutions for pancreatic cancer by focusing on key challenges to identifying, producing and directing new therapies.

SPORE grants are highly competitive – and highly coveted – sources of funding that support basic and clinical/applied research focused on discovering and developing with new approaches to the prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment of human cancers.

Approximately 61,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year and more than 48,000 will die from the disease. In efforts to better address this cancer that is exceptionally difficult to spot early enough to treat, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is investing heavily in innovative projects that leverage translational research and expertise in various fields such as oncology, pharmacology, cancer biology, genetics and immunology.

The Selective Targeting of Pancreatic (SToP) Cancer SPORE seeks to establish a new paradigm for clinical trial design based on cutting-edge research that is not isolated to a single therapy or biomarker. The SPORE will consist of three projects that will develop novel combination therapies to target a process, autophagy, that helps KRAS-mutant pancreatic cancer grow and resist treatment, produce a new generation adoptive T-cell therapy a novel way to harness a patient’s own immune cells prepared in UNC Lineberger’s clean room facilities, and improve treatment selection by matching tumor and tumor microenvironment alterations with treatments that will be most beneficial.

Dr. Jen Jen Yeh

Dr. Jen Jen Yeh

The grant’s principal investigator is Jen Jen Yeh, MD, professor of surgery and pharmacology and director of the Pancreatic Cancer Center of Excellence. Team leaders include Pancreatic Cancer Center of Excellence members Ashwin Somasundaram, MDChanning Der, PhDGianpietro Dotti, MDYuliya Pylayeva-Gupta, PhDGary Johnson, PhDJonathan Serody, MDNaim Rashid, PhDMichael Kosorok, PhDKatherine Hoadley, PhDAlina Iuga, MD, and Albert Baldwin, PhD, as well as Susan Tsai, MD, MHS, FACS, director of the LaBahn Pancreatic Cancer Program at Medical College of Wisconsin.

Rashid and Kosorok are also faculty in the Department of Biostatistics at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

“Pancreatic cancer is a truly challenging disease to both study and treat. Unfortunately, efforts to improve therapy have not been as effective as those seen in other cancers. Innovation is critical as the burden of pancreatic cancer is growing not receding,” said UNC Lineberger Director Shelley Earp, MD. “Dr. Yeh and her team are taking creative steps toward the development of novel therapeutic approaches and that ambitious, thoughtful approach was recognized by NCI and its review body with this major award. This pancreatic SPORE will be one of only two in the country, a tribute to Dr. Yeh and her UNC Lineberger team and their collaborators. Their fundamental science will be translated into hope for our patients and their families.” 

“Support from the NCI allows our team and collaborators from seven institutions to implement novel approaches and develop the types of clinical trials that will help us surmount the challenges that we face in our fight against pancreatic cancer,” Yeh said. 

UNC Lineberger now has three NCI SPORE grants: breast cancer (which was one of the original SPORE grants awarded by the NCI in 1992), pancreatic cancer, and head and neck cancer, which is shared with Yale Cancer Center and Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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