Juozas "Joe” Vasiliauskas, 33, a predoctoral student in the department of cancer biology, came to UC in 2008 with an interest in studying cancer, but he wasn’t quite sure which area of cancer he wanted to pursue.
He says that the resources available to him through the support and recent renewal of a National Cancer Institute Training grant, awarded to Susan Waltz, PhD, and Carolyn Price, PhD, co-principal investigators of the grant and professors of cancer biology at the UC College of Medicine, helped influence him to choose UC for his graduate work. After landing in Waltz’s lab, he became interested in researching the development and growth of prostate cancer.
The $2.3 million T32-Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Institutional Training Grant, awarded for a second time to UC in 2013, provides funding on a highly competitive basis to eligible institutions for development or enhancement of predoctoral and postdoctoral research training opportunities in biomedical and behavioral research. Less than 200 grants across the United States were awarded.
Based in the department of cancer biology, the grant supports the Training Program in Cancer Therapeutics, a postdoctoral and graduate student training program that offers trainees the benefit of faculty mentorship from basic researchers and clinician-scientists, career development opportunities and practical learning experiences with mentors in over 12 departments across the College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
UC’s five-year grant renewal supports up to eight trainees annually. Since receiving its initial funding in 2008, the training program has been able to provide support to 23 postdoctoral researchers and five graduate students.
Vasiliauskas was one of them.
"Our emphasis is on training the next generation of cancer researchers to translate basic science discoveries into improved patient care,” says Waltz.
Department of Defense Funding Earned for Prostate Cancer Research
Vasiliauskas’ research focuses on examining the role of a growth factor—named hepatocyte growth factor-like protein, or HGFL—in the formation of tumors in the prostate.
"HGFL is primarily produced by hepatocytes—cells of the liver that perform a number of metabolic and endocrine functions—in an inactive form, called pro-HGFL,” he says. "Pro-HGFL is activated locally by surface proteins on target cells and by serum proteins of the blood coagulation cascade, a step-by-step process that occurs in the body when a blood vessel is injured when blood forms clots.
"Surprisingly, our novel data revealed that HGFL is also produced in prostate cancer cells.”
He continues that further analysis has shown that animal and human prostate cancer cells produce HGFL while normal prostate epithelial cells do not and that findings have suggested that HGFL has a role in providing a way for prostate tumor cells to survive using certain signaling pathways.
"In researching the function of these cells and the pathways that they affect, we are better able to understand prostate cancer development, and that may one day help us find therapeutic targets to stop it before it develops.”
Because of the initial support offered to Vasiliauskas through the NCI grant, he was able to secure his own funding from the Department of Defense—totaling over $35,000 annually—to continue his research. He will also publish two manuscripts in academic journals detailing his findings within the next year.
Waltz says the ability for trainees to secure their own funding allows them to transition away from the institutionally supported NCI funding and allows an additional trainee to then benefit from the grant, helping more postdoctoral and graduate students reap the benefits of the grant.
Chris Kasbek, 30, is another example of this.
NCI Provides Funding for CTC1's Role in Cancer Formation
Kasbek, who obtained a PhD in molecular genetics from Ohio State University in 2010, is in his third year of a postdoctoral research position at UC in Price’s lab. He received his own research funding from the National Cancer Institute in April 2013, after being on the training grant for almost two years.
"I developed an interest in the roles of telomeres—ends of chromosomes— in cancer and disease while I was a graduate student,” he says. "Dr. Price is one of the premier researchers in this area, and the fact that this department had an open slot on the training grant was very attractive.
"DNA is packaged in chromosomes, and it is essential that the chromosomes are exactly copied and distributed to newly formed cells. Mistakes in the replication process can lead to improper functioning of the machinery in the cell or in packaging of the chromosomes which can cause unequal distribution of chromosomes to the newly formed cells.
"My current research is focused on understanding a component of the replication machinery, CTC1, which is located at the telomeres and has been found to be mutated in patients with Coats plus syndrome—which causes many congenital deformities in patients—and dyskeratosis congenital—which resembles premature aging and could cause an increased risk of cancer.
"We’re attempting to understand the nature of the diseases by introducing the mutated forms of CTC1 into either cancer cells or normal human cells; it is crucial to understand how DNA is copied and properly distributed to newly formed cells in order to understand how cancer initiates and to advance the development of cancer therapeutics.”
Kasbek says he currently has a manuscript accepted for publication and hopes to publish an additional paper prior to completing his training; he hopes to become a faculty member at a research-focused academic institution or obtain a research position with a pharmaceutical or biotech company.
Other Benefits of Grant
"The training serves as an important springboard for young scientists to secure funding and professional cancer research positions,” adds Price.
Vasiliauskas says that opportunities offered through the grant also allowed him to become involved in the Preparing Future Faculty Program, which provides an opportunity for trainees to gain experience in the classroom. He has effectively learned to create a syllabus, has been able to mentor junior researchers and will co-teach a class this fall as a result.
Kasbek adds that the NIH grant writing workshop that is an encouraged component of the training grant curriculum helped with writing and obtaining his own fellowship. Other career development symposiums and shadowing experiences are important components of the training grant experience as well.
"I’m not sure where my training will take me—the classroom, the lab or both—but I do know that my experience at UC was invaluable and will help me gain success in whatever path I choose,” Vasiliauskas says.
The Training Program in Cancer Therapeutics is co-directed by Waltz and Price and is part of the University of Cincinnati Cancer Institute, a UC College of Medicine and UC Health partnership to coordinate the organizations’ shared missions of cancer research, patient care and education. Many UC Cancer Institute scientists and physicians are also part of the Cincinnati Cancer Center, a collaborative initiative of UC, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and UC Health. The center’s ultimate aspiration is to create a world-class comprehensive center leading in innovation to eliminate cancer.