With the aid of a program to advance cancer research in the Lone Star State, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston recently recruited two researchers who are tackling cancer at the molecular level.

This calendar year, the Texas Cancer Registry estimates that 109,053 people in Texas will be newly diagnosed with cancer and that 42,255 will succumb to the disease.

UTHealth was awarded $3.7 million from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) to recruit stem cell investigator Dr. Wa Xian and $2 million to recruit computational biologist Dr. Leng Han.

“The CPRIT program has been tremendously important to help us recruit some of the most outstanding young scientists in cancer research who will help us to continue to build excellence in this and related research areas in the future,” said Dr. George Stancel, executive vice president for academic and research affairs and holder of the Roger J. Bulger, M.D., Distinguished Professorship at UTHealth.

“These are the type of young investigators who will develop into our future institutional leaders in this area and the CPRIT support is critically important to help us recruit them to UTHealth,” he said.

Xian’s research focuses on ovarian cancer, a particularly deadly form of cancer.  Han’s investigations center on genetic errors that cause uncontrolled cell growth.

“Dr. Xian brings a cutting-edge approach to tissue-specific stem cells that can be used to develop cell therapies and further the understanding of disease,” said Dr. Brian Davis, director of the Center for Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine at the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases.

While oncologists can kill the vast majority of ovarian cancer cells with chemotherapy, a tiny number may be resistant to treatment and could cause a recurrence, said Xian, who previously worked at the University of Connecticut.

“In my lab, we are generating patient-specific libraries of cancer stem cells to identify and target a particularly nasty subset that survives chemotherapy and comes back as a repeat disease,” said Xian, assistant professor at UTHealth Medical School.

The hope is that one day oncologists may be able to use this information to personalize treatments for cancer patients.

Whereas Xian’s research is concentrated on ovarian cancer, Han is working on the molecular mechanisms shared by 20 different types of cancer including pancreatic and breast.

He is particularly interested in identifying differences in RNA expression that distinguish cancer cells from normal cells, which is seen as crucial to the development of targeted therapies.

“We already have huge volumes of data on DNA and RNA sequences from cancer patients,” said Han, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

“The challenge is to interpret this vast amount of sequence information and I’m developing computational pipelines to address this challenge. When we get a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms of cancer, we can develop better diagnostic and therapeutic strategies,” Han added.

“Dr. Han’s extensive experience with next generation sequence data from large cancer data resources has prepared him for this research,” said Dr. Rod Kellems, chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Han previously worked at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Davis, Kellems, and Stancel are on the faculty of The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston. Davis is the C. Harold and Lorine G. Wallace Distinguished University Chair at UTHealth.

Between Sept. 1, 2014 and Aug. 31, 2015, UTHealth was awarded 14 CPRIT grants totaling more than $8 million, reports the UTHealth Sponsored Projects Administration.

Beginning operations in 2009, CPRIT has awarded $1.35 billion in grants to Texas researchers, institutions and organizations. CPRIT provides funding through its academic research, prevention and product development research programs.