Congratulations to Dr. Wang on receiving an Institutional Research Grant from the American Cancer Society

December 2, 2021

Pilot grants for early-career cancer researchers draw record applicants

VCU Massey Cancer Center recently renewed its Institutional Research Grant (IRG) from the American Cancer Society (ACS) – a program that has been providing seed money to early-career cancer researchers at VCU for nearly 50 years.

The grant totals $300,000 over the course of three years. A committee of faculty members at Massey doles out $30,000 from this pot at a time to help junior faculty generate pilot data, which can then be used to apply for a larger grant, such as an R01 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“This is a really important award,” said Anita Harrison, M.P.A., executive director for research strategy at Massey. “It’s the only award that the cancer center has that’s dedicated entirely to supporting junior investigators. For some, it’s the first grant they’ve written after starting their own independent labs. A significant number of people launch their academic careers with an ACS-IRG pilot grant, not just at Massey, but across the country.”

David Gewirtz, Ph.D., has served as the ACS-IRG grant’s principal investigator for the last 15 years and leads the review committee. During this cycle, the program received a record-high 17 applications and funded six research projects. The grant only had enough money to cover five projects, but all six of the winners were considered so deserving of support that Massey kicked in additional funds to cover the gap.

“Overall, it was a unique combination of very competitive proposals,” said Gewirtz, a member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program at Massey and professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the VCU School of Medicine. “We funded investigators across a range of schools and departments. So long as it’s related to cancer, we’re supportive.”

The winners this cycle are Chunqing Guo, Ph.D., Richard Joh, Ph.D., Sunny Jung Kim, Ph.D., Rebecca Martin, Ph.D., Georgia Thomas, M.D., Ph.D., and Xuewei Wang, Ph.D. Each of them brings a unique perspective and set of skills toward the common goal of making cancer death and suffering a thing of the past.

Engineering Nanoparticles to Track and Attack Tumors

Solid tumors often cause necrosis – where cells die and spew their contents into the surrounding tissue – which is associated with worse survival rates for patients. When cells explode like this, they unleash vast quantities of potassium ions in the vicinity of the tumor, and these ions block the action of cancer-fighting T cells, allowing the tumor to flourish. Wang, who is an assistant professor of chemistry at VCU’s College of Humanities & Sciences, is using his seed money to create nanoparticles that can visualize the potassium concentration around tumors, absorb excess potassium and trigger the release of localized chemotherapy drugs by sensing when and where potassium levels rise. If successful, this will be the first nanoengineering technology that tracks, corrects and harnesses the ionic imbalance around tumors that makes them so deadly.