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State makes $12.3 million in cancer research grants from its tobacco settlement funds

Wednesday, July 03, 2002

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Pennsylvania Department of Health yesterday announced three cancer research grants totaling $12.3 million funded by the state's share of the national tobacco settlement.

The largest, for $5.5 million, went to a consortium of six leading cancer centers to foster a statewide network that could hasten the identification of biomarkers, which are disease-specific molecules that might help diagnose, monitor or predict the outcome of various cancers.

"We expect we will be able to move the research much more rapidly than if it was just a single institution doing each of these things on their own," said Dr. Ronald Herberman, the consortium's principal investigator and director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

The Pennsylvania Cancer Alliance comprises the cancer centers at Pitt, Thomas Jefferson University, the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State, as well as Fox Chase Cancer Center and the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia.

The participating centers may focus on biomarkers that have already shown promise in their own labs, but will also share knowledge.

"This will probably be the most extensive type of database for this type of information, shareable amongst different institutions, that I'm aware of anywhere in the world," Herberman noted.

A $3.2 million grant was awarded to a collaborative effort between Allegheny-Singer Research Institute and Carnegie Mellon University. In one project, researchers will examine molecular abnormalities in individual cancer cells from patients with non-small cell lung cancer.

The researchers will examine thousands of cells from tumors, normal lung tissue, sputum and other sites in 100 cancer patients and compare them to cells from 100 high-risk and 50 healthy individuals. Carnegie Mellon's experts will explore that vast amount of data using computer techniques to detect patterns that a human investigator may not easily pick up.

Dr. Stanley Schackney of Allegheny-Singer, the research arm of Allegheny General Hospital, said they hope to find distinctive molecular abnormalities in cells that might be detected in sputum. The hope is that patients at risk for lung cancer could be routinely screened and tumors detected while they are still too small to be seen on X-rays. If caught early enough, these tumors presumably could be removed when the cancer is still curable, he added.

A collaboration of Carnegie Mellon researchers and faculty from Dickinson College in Cumberland County was awarded $3.2 million for a project that will try to identify differing subtypes of leukemias based on cellular protein composition.

"It may be that all patients with a given subtype could be treated successfully with the same drug regimen, but those of another subtype might require a different one," said project coordinator Elizabeth Jones, head of CMU's department of biological sciences.

Thirty-five grants were made based on a predetermined formula to universities and hospitals that get funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute. According to Health Secretary Robert S. Zimmerman Jr., $48.6 million has been distributed through these formula grants since the start of the fiscal year.

The University of Pittsburgh gets $8.7 million, Allegheny-Singer Research Institute gets more than $1 million, and Carnegie Mellon gets $862,000 in formula grants. Smaller amounts were designated for Magee-Womens Hospital, Children's Hospital, Mercy Hospital and other Pittsburgh centers.

Correction/Clarification (Published July 8, 2002): >. The headline on this story in the July 3, 2002 editions said "State gets $12.3 million from settlement for cancer study." In reality, $12.3 million was the total of three research grants announced recently by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Under the terms of its settlement with the tobacco industry, the state is to receive an estimated $11.3 billion.

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