UC researcher receives prestigious award to further cancer research

$300,000 grant to advance study into new pancreatic cancer drug

A University of Cincinnati researcher has received new grant funding to continue work that aims to develop a more effective treatment for pancreatic cancer.

Vladimir Bogdanov, PhD, has received a Catalyst Research Award from the Dr. Ralph and Marian Falk Medical Research Trust. Through the $300,000, two-year grant funding, Bogdanov will continue to investigate a new biologic drug he and his team developed to treat pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), a highly lethal cancer with poor treatment options.

Research methodology

The research focuses on a molecule that is overexpressed in cancer and can activate the growth and spread of cancer cells. The developed drug is a humanized antibody designed to target the molecule.  

That molecule “promotes progression and spread of cancer cells in several ways. So if one were to target this molecule, the hope is that the ability of cancer cells to grow and spread will be impeded,” said Bogdanov, associate professor of internal medicine, director of the Hemostasis Research Program in UC’s Division of Hematology/Oncology Department of Internal Medicine in the College of Medicine and a UC Cancer Center member.

The drug has reduced the growth of pancreatic cancer in animal models, and the Catalyst Award will allow Bogdanov to further research its effectiveness in treating PDAC and stopping or slowing cancer growth in preclinical models. This will include testing the drug on real pancreatic tumor tissue from human patients.

He said the drug is especially attractive as a treatment because it appears to be nontoxic. Current PDAC chemotherapy treatments are highly toxic, and many patients cannot tolerate chemo after pancreatic cancer surgery.

“So if we can come up with something that would be at least a comparable alternative to achieve a prolonged overall survival after surgery without all the toxicity associated with chemotherapy, that would be of course a very welcome outcome,” he said.

Dr. Bogdanov uses a pipette in his lab

Vladimir Bogdanov, PhD, will further investigate the effectiveness of the drug he helped develop to fight pancreatic cancer with the Catalyst Research Award. Photo courtesy of the UC Foundation.

Bogdanov said this research project is actually “two studies in one,” because researchers will also test a method used to detect levels of the targeted molecule in the blood of patients. If levels of it are found to correlate with phases or spread of the cancer, clinicians could use it as a biomarker to guide treatment decisions, he said.

“You would imagine the levels to be higher before surgery than afterwards. And if the disease recurs, if the cancer grows back, perhaps you could detect a spike in the levels of this molecule even before traditional methods of detecting the disease such as ultrasound would be able to pick up disease,” Bogdanov said. “And so this is a more exploratory aim, but nonetheless, this would be useful to know the dynamics of systemic levels of this target in pancreatic cancer patients.”

Bogdanov said research into new treatments for pancreatic cancer is essential, as it is the third-leading cause of cancer related deaths in the United States with a five-year survival rate of less than 10%. While there is no guarantee, he said there is also the possibility that if the drug is found to be effective in treating PDAC it can be studied as a treatment for other forms of cancer down the line.

Bogdanov said his lab has been researching that particular molecule in cancer nearly since he arrived at UC in 2009. This new line of study builds upon previous basic science and translational research that has been funded in the past from the National Cancer Institute, Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and Cincinnati-based pancreatic cancer research and awareness nonprofit GIVEHOPE and its corporate partner, BSI Engineering.

A female lab researcher and Dr. Bogdanov examine a specimen

In addition to testing the drug's effectiveness, Bogdanov and his team will study if a targeted molecule can be used as a biomarker to guide treatment decisions. Photo courtesy of UC Foundation.

Securing the grant

Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center have previously received a Catalyst Award, but Bogdanov said he believes this is the first UC-based project to receive funding from the trust.

“It was very exciting to hear about the award, because you always hope, but so many proposals that we write do not result in funding,” Bogdanov said. “Any time you get to hear the good news, it’s certainly wonderful.”

The process of applying was different compared to typical government or foundation grants, and Bogdanov credited UC Foundation’s Carol Russell and the team at UC’s Sponsored Research Services office for making the process as smooth as possible.

“The fewer of those administrative hurdles you have, the more time and effort you can spend on the fundable aspects of the grant,” he said. “They will look at the budget spreadsheet, they will look at the letters of support, but mostly it’s going to be an up or down decision for the grant based on the science.”

Dr. Bogdanov analyzes data on a computer

Bogdanov and his team have focused on this line of cancer research for more than 10 years. Photo courtesy of UC Foundation.

Bogdanov said if this research meets certain milestones, both in terms of the science and furthering structures in preparation for early-phase clinical trials, he will apply for the $1 million   Transformational Award from the trust, which is the next-stage, three-year round of funding.

The trust was created by Marian Falk in 1979 to support biomedical research and find cures for diseases for which no definite cure is known. First awarded in 2015, the Catalyst Research Award Program provides seed funding to support high-risk, high-reward projects. Researchers from select Midwestern institutions are eligible to apply for these awards.

Key collaborators on the project include Davendra Sohal, MD, associate professor of medicine, director of experimental therapeutics, clinic medical director in UC’s Division of Hematology/Oncology and a UC Health physician; Jordan Kharofa, MD, associate professor in the UC Department of Radiation Oncology and a UC Health physician; Krushna Patra, PhD, assistant professor of cancer biology in UC’s College of Medicine; and Jen Jen Yeh, MD, professor in the Departments of Surgery and Pharmacology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Featured photo at top courtesy of UC Foundation.

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