It’s seed funding that could result in the next big discoveries in medicine, and the Cary Council’s latest round of grants could eventually improve outcomes and health for a variety of people.
The Council named its three 2020 grant awardees – each with a different clinical focus but united by a single purpose: to explore new evidence-based pathways to treating some of the world’s most intractable illnesses.
Consisting of emerging young leaders who support the missions of Southwestern Medical Foundation and UT Southwestern Medical Center, the Cary Council continues its tradition of supporting early-career investigators with seed funding that can be leveraged when applying for other grants. This year’s winners from UT Southwestern – Olutoyosi “Toy” Ogunkua, M.D., Chika Nwachukwu, M.D., Ph.D., and Luis Sifuentes-Dominguez, M.D. – bring the total number grants awarded by the council since its founding five years ago to nine.
Ogunkua’s research focuses on maternal bleeding and hemorrhage and aims to limit the hemorrhaging women can have after caesarian section by studying the use of tranexamic acid prophylactically in clinical trials.
Nwachukwu’s focus is on gynecologic cancer, women’s health, and global oncology initiatives, and her work will focus on identifying high-risk cervical cancer patients who could be candidates for more aggressive treatments.
Sifuentes-Dominguez is studying basic mechanisms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Using cutting-edge genomic approaches, he has helped identify novel genes that play a role in early-onset IBD and will continue studying the interaction of the environment with genes associated with IBD.
While the curative effects of the research are potentially still years away, the multiplier effect of funding from the Cary Council has been proven.
Dr. Prasanna Alluri, who was a finalist in 2018 for his work in building targeted therapies to overcome treatment-resistant breast cancer, recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Defense’s Breast Cancer Research Program to develop new treatments for breast cancer patients who have become resistant to existing systemic therapies.
“This work is a direct extension of the work funded by my DocStar award,” Alluri said. “The support from the Cary Council was instrumental in helping me receive federal funding for our research programs. I am extremely grateful for this critical support at an early stage in my career.”
Dr. Alluri is just one example of a success that has been repeated by other grant recipients before him, such as Drs. Jacques Lux and Richard Wang, who gave updates on their research to the Cary Council its recent fall 2020 kick-off and five-year anniversary celebration. Drs. Lux and Wang offered the council a progress report on work that has grown out of their 2017 grants.
Lux is pursuing a treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) – the most common pediatric cancer, accounting for one quarter of all cancers in children. Current treatments are highly allergenic in 30% of children, leading to serious side effects. Lux and his colleagues have found a way to “hide” an anti-cancer enzyme in nanoparticles undetectable by the immune system to avoid an allergic reaction, while at the same time starving the cancer cells of an important amino acid needed to proliferate.
“We want to find a better way to deliver life-saving drugs to all children,” Lux said. He noted that $50,000 from the Cary Council has been leveraged into more than $1.5 million to develop new enzyme-based nanomedicines.
Wang explained how a better understanding of glucose transport will lead to new therapeutics. His research has shown that the GLUT transporter (glucose transporter) is highly expressed in blood and skin cells. By disrupting the function of GLUT transporters in skin cells, new treatments are emerging for psoriasis.
Extending the studies to discover more potent inhibitors of the GLUT transporter could also lead to new treatments of non-melanoma skin cancer, he said. Among other grants, his funding from the Cary Council has led to a National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases R01 Award of $1.8 million over five years.
In total, the Cary Council’s six grant recipients named in previous years have received $6.8 million in follow-on grants, according to Michael Kahn, founding chairman of the Cary Council.
“We are thrilled with the early success,” Kahn said. “Our hope is the DocStars seed capital helps motivate these talented UT Southwestern Young Investigators to stay local – and ultimately drives future scientific discoveries at UT Southwestern.”
Amanda George, the new incoming chair of the Council, thanked Kahn for his boundless energy and tireless work in forming the group, which began with his late mother’s battle with glioblastoma – and a dream to honor her memory in a way that engages the community to fuel progress in leading-edge science.
“What began with one member, Michael, is now a thriving community organization dedicated to supporting innovation at UT Southwestern powered by the steadfast support of the Southwestern Medical Foundation,” she said.
“These wonderful leaders carry on an extraordinary tradition of philanthropic support, which is the cornerstone of medical excellence in Dallas,” Gibson said. “Philanthropy is vital in advancing early-stage research, which may be too nascent to attract other funding sources. So it has been rewarding to see the Cary Council’s previous grant recipients demonstrating tremendous and tangible results. We could not be more proud of the Cary Council for seeing the importance of support for young investigators.” Learn more about The Cary Council’s journey of growth over the past five years.
Kahn emphasized the importance of continuing to attract new members.
“We have always thought about impact from two vantage points: community and research,” Kahn said. “In a post vaccine world, the importance of research, education and care in our backyard is increasingly clear.”
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