Researchers at the University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center may be one step closer to understanding the mechanisms of colorectal and pancreatic cancers due to a $10.7 million grant it recently received.

The Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant for gastrointestinal cancers, provided by the National Cancer Institute, will provide the Cancer Center with five years of funding to be used toward four separate projects.

The grant was initially awarded last August, but the researchers received the funds and started their work last month.

Investigators from the University’s Medical School and School of Public Health will collaborate on researching prevention and detection measures for colorectal and pancreatic cancers as well as new and improved treatments for pancreatic cancer.

Dean Brenner, who is the principal investigator of the SPORE grant and a professor of internal medicine and pharmacology at the Medical School, wrote in a Dec. 22, 2010 University of Michigan Health System press release that it is essential to apply new findings toward clinical settings.

“This grant represents a major effort to bridge the basic science to the clinic,” he wrote in the press release.

Diane Simeone, a professor and associate chair of research at the Medical School and the principal investigator on a project that will investigate therapies for treating pancreatic cancer, echoed Brenner’s sentiments and said in an interview Monday that the opportunity to work with other experts is a benefit of the grant.

“I’m most excited about the fact that we have this unifying grant that really cements us all together, gives us a great reason to meet regularly and enhances our overall research program,” Simeone, said.

She continued, “Having the grant and working together to execute it is really the highlight of the whole process.”

Simeone said she hopes the department will sustain its funding and continue to address the problems involved with colon and pancreatic cancer.

She added that due to the aggressive nature of both cancers, finding a way to decrease mortality rates has been “a very tough nut to crack.”

The focus of the Translational Research Program, the NCI sector that deals with SPORE grants, on clinical trials and the funding of up-and-coming investigators may spur progress, Simeone said.

“A huge positive (of the grant) is having the opportunity to offer a set of funds to help young investigators get their research into the field of gastrointestinal oncology,” Simeone said.

The University Hospital, which is the only institution in the state receiving SPORE funding, currently holds two additional SPORE grants in the departments of internal medicine and otolaryngology — the study of the ears, nose and throat.

The objective of the SPORE grants, according to the NCI website, is “to reduce cancer incidence and mortality, and to improve survival and quality of life for cancer patients.”

The NCI website states that funding can be applied toward researching 17 different organ sites, including the brain, lungs, skin and, in the case of the University’s department of otolaryngology, the head and neck.

Toby Hecht, the associate director of the NCI’s Translational Research Program, said anywhere between 35 and 40 medical departments across the country apply for SPORE grants each year. Currently, there are 67 active grants distributed to academic institutions across 23 states, according to the NCI’s website.

Hecht added that the selection process for grant applicants is based on determining which institutions will perform the best scientific work with the funding.

“We don’t particularly try to balance the organ sites,” Hecht said. “We do it based on science — the best science rules.”

Once the funding for the University’s gastroenterology SPORE grants ceases in 2015, the Medical School will have the opportunity to apply for another if it wishes, Hecht said.

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