School of Medicine wins National Cancer Institute’s Provocative Questions grant

The $1.9 million research grant will allow investigators to study tumor detection at the earliest stages of formation

Susann Brady-Kalnay
Susann Brady-Kalnay, principal investigator and professor of molecular biology and microbiology

The National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) new Provocative Questions research funding program has awarded a prestigious grant to researchers at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center and Case Western Reserve University’s medical and engineering schools to study tumor detection at the earliest stages of growth.

“We know that the best way to fight cancer is to find tumors when they are small and have not yet left their primary location,” said principal investigator Susann Brady-Kalnay, professor of molecular biology and microbiology. “Our unique approach uses molecular imaging agents that recognize tumors using conventional magnetic resonance (MR) scanners. We envision that this technological advance will allow us to detect very early stage tumors using conventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines that currently exist at most major hospitals.”

The grant is part of the NCI’s Provocative Questions Project, conceived by NCI Director Harold Varmus, to challenge cancer researchers to provide answers for 24 perplexing questions in cancer research. In 2012, the NCI assembled a list of important questions to stimulate the research community to use multiple scientific disciplines, including clinical and laboratory science and epidemiology, in novel ways to investigate promising but neglected or unexplored areas of research. A Provocative Questions research project is charged with tackling broad questions in cancer biology and aims for a five- to 10-year time frame for making significant progress.

The Case Western Reserve grant is one of only 30 awarded nationwide by the NCI in 2013 and only one of two in Ohio. The research team will address the NCI’s fifth Provocative Question: “Can tumors be detected when they are two to three orders of magnitude smaller than those currently detected with in vivo imaging modalities?”

“Now that we have received the grant, our hope is to translate our discoveries into clinical practice,” Brady-Kalnay said. “With this technology, the radiologist will be confident that the abnormality on an MRI is actually a malignant tumor. This will inform the surgeon where all the tumor cells are located in order to remove them, and then the oncologist will be able to monitor how well each individual patient is responding to a given chemotherapy or radiation treatment.”

“Dr. Brady-Kalnay’s novel approach is built on her discovery of an abnormal protein fragment on tumor cells that encourages their movement through tissue,” stated Stanton Gerson, the Asa and Patricia Shiverick- Jane Shiverick (Tripp) Professor of Hematological Oncology, director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center and director of the Seidman Cancer Center at UH Case Medical Center. “This is a key factor that starts the process of metastasis, the most devastating part of cancer growth. Finding these cells early, and pinpointing their location by MR is a phenomenal advancement in the field of cancer diagnosis.”

Case Western Reserve was uniquely positioned to win the Provocative Questions grant because of the university’s expertise in building world-class interdisciplinary teams that function with a high level of collaboration and cooperation.

This strong suit is evident in the Provocative Questions grant team, which includes chemists, MRI physicists, radiologists, biomedical engineers and cancer biologists. In addition to Brady-Kalnay, the research team includes Mark Griswold, professor of radiology; Vikas Gulani, assistant professor of radiology; Zheng-Rong Lu, the M. Frank and Margaret Domiter Rudy Professor of Biomedical Engineering; and David Wilson, the Robert J. Herbold Professor of Biomedical Engineering.