April 1, 2010–Two pilot projects funded by the Delaware Health Sciences Alliance (DHSA) under its second competition focus on identifying cutting-edge cancer therapies, and creating the bioinformatics framework that will facilitate translational research among the alliance members.

   Jack London
Jack London, research professor of cancer biology and director of the Informatics Shared Resource of Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University, is the principal investigator on a DHSA pilot project to establish a bioinformatics framework for the alliance.
Zhihao Zhuang
UD’s Zhihao Zhuang, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, left, is leading a cancer study with funding from a DHSA pilot grant. Zhuang is shown with graduate students Jialiang Wang and Junjun Chen in his laboratory.

DHSA is a coalition comprised of Christiana Care Health System, Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children, Thomas Jefferson University, and the University of Delaware, aimed at improving health and healthcare services in Delaware. The alliance, which was established last year, is led by Kathleen Matt, dean of the College of Health Sciences at UD.

“I am pleased to announce the funding of the second round of pilot grants,” Matt said. “These grants will contribute to the realization of a key goal of the DHSA — to develop a thriving, inter-institutional translational research capacity that will yield new health practices, therapies, and interventions, to improve people’s lives.”

Both pilot projects won one-year, $75,000 grants from DHSA, and the projects officially start May 1. They are:

Linking Genotype to Phenotype: A pilot project to create a research data warehouse of biospecimen and omic information.

Jack London, research professor of cancer biology and director of the Informatics Shared Resource of Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University, is the principal investigator on this effort, which will leverage the medical bioinformatics infrastructure of the partner institutions to establish a prototype translational research framework for the DHSA.

London’s co-investigators include Cathy Wu, Edward G. Jefferson Professor of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at UD, Dr. Edward Ewen from Christiana Care Health System, and Prof. Timothy Bunnell from Nemours.

The team’s goal is to provide researchers with access to well-annotated information on biospecimens so that experimental results can be linked to clinical observations and procedures for the generation of new hypotheses about gene-disease relationships and the identification of potential diagnoses or therapeutic targets.

“Omics” data — genomic, proteomic, and systems biology data — in the Protein Information Resource at UD will be linked with specimen diagnostic information in caTissue deployments at Thomas Jefferson University, Christiana Care Health System, and Nemours. caTissue is a biorepository management tool for the National Cancer Institute’s cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid (caBIG).

A data warehouse will be created using the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Informatics for Integrating Biology and the Bedside (i2b2) framework, and scientific use cases and a specimen annotation for DHSA researchers will be developed and evaluated.

The prototype will serve as the basis for a future NIH proposal to develop the framework as part of a national translational research infrastructure.

Discovery of inhibitors against the ubiquitin specific protease 11 (USP11) in human DNA damage response.

This project, led by Zhihao Zhuang, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UD, seeks to discover compounds that inhibit the human protein USP11 for the development of potent new anti-cancer drugs.

Cancer is a top killer worldwide. According to a 2009 report by the Delaware Division of Public Health, the cancer incidence rate of 504.2 per 100,000 in Delaware was significantly higher than the U.S. rate of 471.1 per 100,000. The overall cancer mortality rate of 200.6 per 100,000 in Delaware also was significantly higher than the U.S. rate of 189.8 per 100,000.

USP11 plays an important role in cellular response to DNA damage and is emerging as a promising target for pharmacological intervention because of its connection to prostate, colon, and breast cancer, and pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia, among other diseases.

Zhuang’s co-investigators include Dr. Jonathan Brody at Thomas Jefferson University, Dr. Andrew Napper at Nemours Center for Childhood Cancer Research, and Zohra Ali-Khan Catts, director of cancer genetic counseling at Christiana Care Health System’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center.

DHSA pilot grants provide up to $75,000 for projects ranging from 12 to 18 months. Projects are selected based on scientific merit, the potential to lead to a larger proposal for NIH funding, and the ability of the research team, which must include at least one investigator from each member institution, to demonstrate successful collaboration among the four institutions. Two projects were funded in the first competition last April, focusing on prostate cancer and cardiovascular studies.

The next call for proposals will be made this summer. For more information, visit the DHSA Web site.

Article by Tracey Bryant on UDaily