Research aims to combat cancer cells

If a group of Yale researchers have their way, cancerous ovarian stem cells would be rid of their anti-chemotherapy defenses.

Armed with over $5 million in federal and foundation grants, a team of scientists from the Yale School of Medicine is currently devising an aggressive approach to reversing the cells’ resistance to chemotherapy — thus reducing the disease’s mortality rate. The grant, obtained in a time of decreased medical funding, will keep the Yale ovarian cancer program on track to being a leader in the field, said Gil Mor, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and head of the project’s 10-person research team.

The goal: Create a drug to thwart the ability of a specific subgroup of cancerous stem cells to resist chemotherapy — and have it go through clinical trials as soon as possible.

But funding such research is not an easy task, said Alessandro Santin, a member of Mor’s research team and professor of obstetrics and gynecology. The funds available for ovarian cancer research are significantly harder to come by than those for, say, breast cancer research, he explained, attributing the discrepancy to the fact that ovarian cancer accounts for only about 3 percent of all cancers in women. (Breast cancer, in comparison, is the second leading cause of cancer in women.)

“Science, in general, has gone through a terrible time in terms of funding,” Michael Donoghue, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said of research funding under the administration of former president George W. Bush ’68.

“In a way it’s a bit like Russian roulette,” Santin added of the degree of luck and uncertainty inherent in the grant application process. “There are many good ideas and little room to get them across.”

For that reason, Mor spent just under 10 years building his ovarian cancer research program. Because of the difficulty of procuring funds for ovarian cancer research, he initially focused on supporting his research with grants from smaller foundations, in order to acquire a stable funding base, he said.

After a successful presentation of his report on isolating and cloning chemotherapy-resistant cancerous stem cells at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in 2008, Mor said he felt it necessary to expand his funding base.

“Isolating and cloning these cells will lead to the development of new treatments to target and eliminate the cancer stem cells and hopefully prevent recurrence,” Mor said at the conference.

The research group is aiming to get the drug, which will sensitize the resistant cells, into Phase I clinical trials within five years — ideally, within three to four, Mor said. (Phase I trials are the first stage of testing done on humans.)

Mor received a five-year annual grant of $314,000 from the National Cancer Institute this past year to examine how cancer stem cells resist death and another five-year grant from the NCI totaling $1,715,000 to investigate how tumors use the body’s immune system to further their own growth. Three foundations are also supporting Mor’s research, offering grants totalling $650,000. Santin received $1.7 million from the Italian National Institutes of Health and $346,000 per year for five years from the NCI.

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