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University receives grants for research on tobacco-related disease

by Chris DeFrancesco - October 15, 2007

UConn researchers working on five different projects will share in more than $1.5 million in state grants to study cancer, heart disease, and other tobacco-related illnesses.

The grants are from the Biomedical Research Trust Fund, which the state bankrolls with a portion of the annual payments received from the settlement with the tobacco industry.

The Connecticut Department of Public Health has awarded grants for research projects in tobacco-related illnesses each year since 2005.

The agency awarded grants for six of the 15 proposals for which it received applications this year.

In addition to the five involving UConn researchers, one went to a Yale School of Medicine scientist studying a tumor-specific delivery system for cancer gene therapy.

The largest of the grants goes to Lance Bauer, a professor of psychiatry at the Health Center, and Dr. Godfrey Pearlson, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University.

They were awarded nearly $540,000 for their research examining the role of specific candidate genes in amplifying the effects of tobacco on brain structure and function.

“A unique aspect of our project is its focus on middle-aged adults who have not yet developed clinical complications – for example, stroke – but may be at increased genetic risk for these complications if they continue to use tobacco,” Bauer says.

Quing Zhu, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Storrs, and Dr. Molly Brewer, director of gynecologic oncology at the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Health Center, are working on a way to measure two different aspects of early ovarian cancer by joining technologies. They’ve been awarded more than $315,000.

“Combining optical coherence tomography and micro positron emission tomography should improve our ability to detect these cancers earlier and more reliably,” says Brewer, “and we will focus on women at risk for ovarian cancer.”

Also involved in this research are: John Gamelin, a postdoctoral fellow in electrical and computer engineering; Dr. Melinda Sanders, from the Health Center’s pathology department; Dr. Changping Zou, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology; and Dr. Mozafareddin Karimeddini, clinical director of nuclear medicine.

“This translational research involves a close collaboration between basic scientists at Storrs and physicians at the UConn Health Center,” Zhu says.

“The short-term goal is to develop an intra-operative probe to use at the time of surgery for suspected ovarian cancer. The long-term goal is to advance this novel device for in-vivo diagnosis and to guide surgical intervention with high-risk ovarian cancer patients.”

Dr. Jennifer Tirnauer, an assistant professor of medicine at the Health Center, was awarded nearly $300,000 for her research on a gene mutation associated with the development of colon cancer.

“We are asking a fundamental question about how cell division is controlled and how it goes awry in cancer,” Tirnauer says.

“This funding from the Department of Public Health provides crucial support for our research.”

John Peluso, a professor of cell biology and obstetrics and gynecology at the Health Center, was awarded more than $280,000 for his research on a potential adjunct therapy for advanced ovarian cancer patients that would make tumors more sensitive to chemotherapy.

“This is based on the discovery of a novel membrane receptor for the steroid hormone progesterone, which regulates the survival of normal and cancerous cells,” Peluso says.

David Gregorio, director of the Master of Public Health program, was awarded nearly $110,000 for his work reviewing breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer studies to determine participants’ tobacco use.

“This research is helping shine new light on how tobacco use contributes to chronic diseases,” says Gov. M. Jodi Rell, “and moves us forward in the effort to save lives of those stricken with cancer, heart disease, or smoking-related diseases.

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