Texas Tech University

Grant Funds at Work

Gao and Singh Receive $435,000 from NIH
to Find How Healthy Cells Become Lung Cancer

Weimin Gao and Kamaleshwar Singh received an NIH grant 

Written by Toni Salama

In the war on cancer, one of the toughest battles is the fight against lung cancer. Thanks to early detection screenings, survival rates have significantly improved for patients who get breast cancer or colon cancer, said researcher Weimin Gao. But there's no early detection tests, or biomarkers, for lung cancer. The survival time for most of those who get it is less than five years.

"By the time it is found," Gao said, "it is too late."

Weimin Gao, Associate Professor of Molecular Epidemiology and principal investigator for the project, along with co-investigator Kamaleshwar Singh, Associate Professor of Environmental Genomics and Molecular Carcinogenesis, received a $435,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to find out how healthy cells become lung cancer cells.

Weimen Gao, TTU

The two scientists, both of TTU's The Institute for Environmental & Human Health (TIEHH)/Department of Environmental Toxicology, are focusing their current lung cancer research on a protein called Twist1, which has the ability to bind to DNA and regulates other genes. According to their research abstract, Twist 1, when "overexpressed," plays an important role in carcinogenesis, the process by which normal cells turn into cancer cells. However, the exact mechanism by which Twist1 plays such a role, and how that mechanism may differ from one carcinogen to another, is largely unknown. Therefore, new insight into how lung cancer is initiated and progresses, mediated by Twist 1, is urgently needed.

At the very least, the study results will help improve the understanding of how lung carcinogenesis progresses by specific carcinogens as mediated by Twist 1, and whether there is any clinical significance of targeting Twist 1 for lung cancer treatment.

And the best possible outcome? "The best outcome will be if we can prove we have a target that can be used for lung cancer early detection or treatment," Singh said.

Kamaleshwar Singh, TTU

"We'll be looking for molecular targeted therapies," Gao said. "Or, this could open doors to find new targets that are carcinogen specific. We may find an early detection tool." The research also will incorporate therapies that are known to be effective on other types of cancer, with an eye toward achieving better results against lung cancer.

"We're studying very potent carcinogens," said Gao. "Tobacco smoke, environmental pollution, and particulate matter. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), there are more than 5,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, among which more than 60 of them are confirmed as carcinogens."

The money is important. They'll be using mice for their study. Lab mice can cost between $70 and $150 each, depending on what traits, such as a compromised immune system, are required. The mice must have food, water, and bedding that are free of contaminants that could affect the experiments. The costs of maintaining those things through testing that can run as long as 36 weeks adds up.

Even more important than the money itself, though, is where it came from. In receiving a grant from the NIH, Gao and Singh have broken something of a glass ceiling. The agency typically awards research funds only to medical institutions, said Todd Anderson, Director of TIEHH and Chair of the Department of Environmental Toxicology.

"The topic of the research is important. The source of the funds is important to Texas Tech. And I know the two guys who are getting the funds," Anderson said. "Besides being good scientists they are good people, and they have battled to get this. Most of these grants go to medical institutions, so you have an extra hurdle to jump when you are not a medical school. They were turned down a lot, but they didn't give up and pursue other things; they have persisted. It shows other faculty that if you stay with it, good things can happen."

Singh said the NIH grant is a strong foundation from which to compete for even larger grants. "A federal research grant is very, very tough to get. We are pleased to get it," Singh said. "It shows that the NIH has recognized our research has value, and the money will help promote undergraduate and graduate student research."

Gao agreed. "This is important not only for our success but for the students," he said. "No one can do science alone."

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