University of Vermont

VCC Scientists Receive Regional Cancer Research Organization Awards

From left, Aishwarya Prakash, Ph.D., Mercedes Rincon, Ph.D., Nick Heintz, Ph.D., Kim Dittus, M.D.
Lake Champlain Cancer Research Organization award winners, from left, Aishwarya Prakash, Ph.D., Mercedes Rincon, Ph.D., Nick Heintz, Ph.D., Kim Dittus, M.D. (Photo by Raj Chawla, UVM Medical Photography)

The Vermont Cancer Center at the University of Vermont and Fletcher Allen Health Care has announced that four UVM cancer researchers have been named recipients of the 2012 Lake Champlain Cancer Research Organization (LCCRO) Awards.

Aishwarya Prakash, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate in microbiology and molecular genetics, has been named the 2012 J. Walter Juckett Postdoctoral Fellow. This two-year, $100,000 award is supported by the LCCRO in memory of its founder, the philanthropist J. Walter Juckett, and in honor of his commitment to the support and funding of the important work of cancer researchers. The J. Walter Juckett Postdoctoral Fellowship is made biannually to an outstanding young investigator having expertise in one of the VCC major research areas. Prakash’s research focuses on two enzymes called DNA glycosylases that are involved in recognizing and removing damaged DNA bases from cells. Without these glycosylases, the damages remain unprepared, thereby causing mutations and abnormal cell growth eventually leading to cancerous tumors. Specifically, Prakash will use multiple techniques, including X-ray crystallography, to examine the mutations in these glycosylases in order to gain a better basic understanding of how they function in mutagenesis and tumorigenesis. Prakash is collaborating with the laboratories of two mentors in microbiology and molecular genetics – Professor Sylvie Doublié, Ph.D., and Susan Wallace, Ph.D., chair of the department.

In addition, two VCC members were awarded 2012 Pilot Project Awards and a third was awarded Bridge funds. The one-year, $50,000 VCC-LCCRO Pilot Project Awards allow researchers to investigate new research directions and develop preliminary data that often lead to extended peer-reviewed funding support from larger organizations such as the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, or American Cancer Society.

The following researchers were awarded Pilot Project and Bridging funds:

Kim Dittus, M.D., Ph.D., an oncologist and UVM assistant professor of medicine, will focus on how exercise, an effective intervention for cancer-related fatigue, impacts the physiological and biological mechanisms believed to play a role in fatigue and shortness of breath. Fatigue is the most common side effect of cancer survivors, especially in women with breast cancer, and is often accompanied by shortness of breath. However, the mechanisms that cause shortness of breath are unknown. Dittus’ Pilot Project, which is being conducted in collaboration with colleagues in the Vermont Lung Center, will examine these mechanisms both before and after a 12-week exercise intervention.

Nicholas Heintz, Ph.D., a UVM professor of pathology, has shown that mesotheliomas, intractable tumors most often associated with asbestos exposure, up-regulate antioxidant networks as an adaptive response in order to tolerate increased levels of oxidative stress. His lab has discovered that several common antibiotics disable the adaptive antioxidant responses in mesothelioma cells, and thereby block tumor cell proliferation and survival. Using several experimental models, these agents will be tested alone and in combination to determine the optimal approach for impairing tumor growth without inducing significant toxicity. His long-term goal is to establish a combination of strategies for disabling adaptive mechanisms as a novel approach for treating mesothelioma.

Mercedes Rincón, Ph.D., UVM professor of medicine, received a Bridge Award for her current research, titled “Mechanisms involved in metabolic switcher and chemo/radiation response in breast cancer,” which relates to the mechanisms of drug resistance – a major challenge in breast cancer research – and the effect of diet and metabolism on the survival of breast cancer tumor cells.