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Cancer Research at UT: A solid foundation for a medical school

Seeing Cancer Research in Action

Cancer research involves many steps, from the laboratory all the way to the clinic. Thanks to a new partnership with two San Antonio cancer centers, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have a chance to see how their work directly affects patients.

Translational science brings the basic science developed in laboratories into the clinic. Findings on the cellular level must be “translated” to become pharmaceutical agents or treatment protocols after rigorous testing and approval by agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Linda deGraffenried, associate professor of nutritional sciences, and her team of researchers are focused on the 15 percent of breast cancer patients and 10 percent of prostate cancer patients who are facing a dim prognosis.

“We are here to find out what makes cancer more aggressive in these patients,” she says.

The nutrition researchers are working to identify the optimal combination of diet and chemotherapy to treat the most aggressive cancers that begin in the breast or the prostate and rapidly metastasize, or spread, to other parts of the body.

“We are looking closely at changing diet, both for prevention and in combination with pharmacological approaches to a cancer treatment, to improve the patient’s outcome,” says deGraffenried, a molecular biologist. She and her team work in a lab to identify potential biochemical targets of therapeutic drugs — providing a foundation for novel approaches to cancer treatment.

And now they can see the treatment in action. In a new program, established during the summer of 2012, deGraffenried and her students work in San Antonio with the Cancer Treatment & Research Center at the Health Science Center (a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center) and the South Texas Accelerated Research Therapeutics (START) program, which are at the forefront of translational science. Both programs enlist teams of doctors, nurses and support staff to provide patient care and accelerate the development of new therapeutics to treat and prevent cancer through a wide range of clinical trials.

“Our goal is understanding what is happening in the human being. We hope to learn from the patients,” says deGraffenried. “We follow the doctors on rounds, we hear the questions they are asking, we see how different cancers respond to the different treatments, and we take all of that back to the lab.”

Because deGraffenried and her students work so closely with oncology doctors, their research has developed new trajectories but is underpinned by a human connection.

“This past summer, one of our graduate students followed doctors as they assessed patients. She was permitted to palpate the liver of a patient with cancer that had metastasized. She made a connection with a human being. That connection caused her to rededicate herself to the research,” says deGraffenried.

The goal of the researchers’ presence in the clinic permits them to connect the work they are doing in the lab with the people whom that work helps. They bring that information back to the Dell Pediatric Research Institute to develop more effective interventions — diet, lifestyle and drugs — to improve survival for all cancer patients.

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