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April 27, 2011

UVA scientist wins national Stand Up To Cancer grant to unlock cancer’s genetic secrets

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Hui Li, PhD, assistant professor of pathology at the University of Virginia Cancer Center , was shocked when he was asked to fly on two days notice to Orlando, Fla., where he would be announced as one of just 13 scientists in the nation to win an Innovative Research Grant from the film and media industry’s Stand Up To Cancer (SO2C) charitable group.

“One person every minute dies from cancer,” Li says. “One out of three women, and one out of two men, will be diagnosed with the disease. So it’s well worth fighting, and that’s why I’m in this field. I want to do something to help patients’ lives.”

The three-year, $750,000 grant will allow Li’s laboratory at UVA to attempt breakthroughs in understanding cancer through innovative approaches and cutting-edge research projects. His research could lead to improvements in patient diagnosis and care and progress toward the goal of personalized medicine in terms of “who to treat, when to treat and how to treat.”

A molecular biologist, Li plans to use the grant to study how the fusion of separate genes in the cell, by the rearrangement of DNA, plays a crucial role in cancer development. It’s a broad topic. More than 400 separate gene fusion proteins have been discovered as major cancer drivers. These fusion RNA and protein products currently are used as tools for diagnosing cancer and targets for cancer drugs, such as imatinib for certain types of leukemia.

But Li’s team has found fusion proteins in healthy, non-cancerous cells as well, which developed through another mechanism he calls “RNA trans-splicing.” Li wants to know how widespread these trans-spliced proteins are and what role they play in both normal and cancer cells, which could ultimately lead to better cancer diagnosis and therapy.

“The presence of fusion proteins in normal cells can lead to the chance for false positive cancer diagnoses or unnecessary treatment and side-effects involving normal tissue,” Li says. “We hope our proposal will one day translate to better clinical practice, better diagnosis methods, a better therapeutic approach and maybe a better understanding of how cancer develops.”

Li’s grant is part of a $9.74 million effort by Stand Up To Cancer to fund translational research by the best and brightest young cancer scientists across the United States. The Innovative Research Grants (IRG) program was designed specifically to support work that incorporates new ideas in cancer research.

“In this era of interdisciplinary cancer research, these cutting-edge approaches have enormous potential for rapid improvements in patient care,” says William G. Nelson, MD, PhD, IRG vice chairperson and director of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.

In addition to Li, other Stand Up To Cancer IRG recipients hail from such top institutions as Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, Massachusetts General Hospital and Stanford University.

Recent graduates with strong self-motivation are welcome in Li’s lab to make their marks on the new field of functional trans-splicing.  Interested applicants should send their CV and list of references to .

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