UI Cancer Center members receive Lung Association grants

Two University of Illinois Cancer Center members – and a researcher in the laboratory of a UI Cancer Center member – have received grants through the American Lung Association’s Awards and Grants program to help combat and reduce the suffering and burden of lung disease.

Jiyeon Kim, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics and member of the UI Cancer Center’s Cancer Biology program, received the ALA’s Lung Cancer Discovery Award for the second consecutive year, while Yuru Liu, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology who is also a member of the UI Cancer Center’s Cancer Biology program, was the recipient of the ALA’s Innovation Award. Suellen D’Arc dos Santos Oliveira, PhD, research assistant professor and a scientist in the laboratory of UI Cancer Center member Richard Minshall, PhD, received The James & Marlene Ryan Catalyst Award from the Lung Association.

“COVID-19 has placed lung health at the forefront of everyone’s minds, especially for those who are concerned about air pollution, wildfires and pre-existing lung conditions such as asthma and COPD,” said American Lung Association President and CEO Harold Wimmer in a release. “Despite the fact that the pandemic poses significant economic challenges, the American Lung Association is prioritizing research and significantly increasing award funding to help improve the lung health of All Americans.”

The Lung Associated has committed $11.55 million total to fund promising research through 98 awards. The University of Illinois Chicago recipients and their studies are:

Jiyeon Kim – Targeting hexosamine pathway in an aggressive subtype of lung cancer

The formation of cancer is regulated by changes to specific genes that control energy and processing of nutrients. These steps are needed for the cancer to keep proliferating. Kim’s laboratory has discovered that the cellular content of sugar-related molecules – called hexosamines – is dramatically increased by a combination of two of the most common gene mutations in lung cancer, the third most common cancer in the United States.

Kim’s laboratory is conducting studies to understand how certain gene mutations alter metabolism in lung cancer, and how these changes create liabilities that can be exploited therapeutically.

“By integrating genetic and metabolic analyses, we discovered that the cellular content of glucosamine-related metabolites called hexosamines is dramatically increased by the combination of the two most common mutations in lung cancer,” Kim said. “In our study, we dissect the role of these concurrent mutations in hexosamine metabolism and investigate strategies to inhibit hexosamine synthesis.”

Kim’s research capitalizes on a suite of mouse models of cancer, state-of-the-art techniques in metabolomics and metabolic flux analysis, and a novel technology permitting the editing of the cancer genome. If successful, “this work will have a major impact on cancer,” she said.

“First, it will provide guidelines to patients whether glucosamine restriction is beneficial. Secondly, it will evaluate the therapeutic importance of a metabolic vulnerability in a particularly aggressive subtype of lung cancer. I’m grateful to the American Lung Association for choosing me to receive this award, and I’m excited to continue my work.”

The Lung Cancer Discovery Award supports independent investigators conducting clinical, laboratory, epidemiological or any groundbreaking project aimed at revolutionizing the current understanding of lung cancer and improving diagnostic, clinical and treatment methods. The award is for $100,000 per year for up to two years.

Yuru LiuBioactive lipid mediated Endothelial niche regulation in alveolar epithelial repair

The alveoli are small, fragile air sacs located in clusters at the end of the bronchial tubes located deep in the lungs. The alveolar barrier of the human lung is constantly exposed to bacteria, viruses and particles, and is susceptible to inflammation and injury. Therefore, the proper repair of injured alveoli is essential, but the precise signals and mechanisms involved are unclear.

Liu’s laboratory will define the role of a chemical messenger called endothelial-derived mediator sphingosine-1-phosphate in driving alveoli repair. In the long term, this knowledge has the potential to facilitate the discovery of therapeutic targets to accelerate lung repair and prevent the chronic lung conditions resulting from improper recovery.

Liu and other Innovation Award winners receive $75,000 per year for up to two years.

“The American Lung Association award will allow me continue with my current work,” said Liu, who began researching alveolar repair since 2007, the year she arrived at UIC. “We began studying lipid signaling in lung repair in 2015, and we have made significant progress. Our research has the potential to be a leading innovative therapeutic approach to alveoli repair.”

Suellen D’Arc dos Santos OliveiraRole of Caveolin-1 and BMPRII Short Form in Pulmonary Vascular Homeostatis

Pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) is a life-threatening disease characterized by progressive narrowing of the lung’s blood vessels, affecting its blood flow which ultimately causes the rise of blood pressure in the lungs. When this occurs the heart must work harder to pump blood through the arteries, causing the organ’s muscles to weaken, which can eventually lead to death from heart failure. PAH can emerge from different conditions, including genetic mutations or infection, but in some cases the cause is unknown.

Dos Santos Oliveira and her colleagues are studying the role of inflammation and oxidative stress (an excess of free radicals in the body’s cells) in promoting abnormal changes to cells lining the lung’s blood vessels, called endothelial cells, and how these changes lead to the onset and progression of PAH. The project will allow researchers to develop possible novel therapies to treat the disease, a rare condition with about 500 to 1,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the United States. About 15% to 20% of patients with PAH have inherited the condition, according to the Lung Association.

Catalyst Award recipients receive $50,000 per year for up to two years. Prior to being awarded the Lung Association grant, dos Santos Oliveira received a two-year postdoctoral fellowship from the American Heart Association.

“In a COVID-19 pandemic year, to receive this award from the American Lung Association to conduct research on pulmonary diseases is more than a privilege, it is an honor,” she said. “I feel extremely grateful to be one of the seven awardees in this category, and I have been giving my best to find substantial answers for our research questions to help find better treatments for PAH patients in the future.”