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Meet Dallas-Fort Worth’s newest crop of high risk/high impact cancer researchers

Dallas Morning News

Originally Posted: Aug 30, 2021

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas is gambling on scientists with big ideas and even bigger potential.

Uttam Tambar knew his research could flop.

“This is going to sound like a crazy idea,” he said in an email to co-worker Bruce Posner last fall about a potential grant proposal to the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. A self-proclaimed big-picture guy, thinking unconventionally and taking risks is expected of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center biomedical scientist.

His proposal did seem crazy, at least at first glance. He wanted to use high-throughput technology in Posner’s lab to find new molecules, called protein degraders, at a pace that’s never been done before. If the process proved successful, it could help identify chemicals for new cancer treatments quickly and efficiently.

Tambar’s suggestion was broader and riskier than what most grant-giving organizations are willing to consider, and without funding, his potentially monumental research could never materialize. Luckily, he and Posner found a partner in CPRIT’s High Impact/High Risk Award.

CPRIT, founded in 2007 when Texans voted to create a bond fund committed to cancer research, represents the largest state cancer research investment in U.S. history. With $6 billion in total funding, the organization awards new quarterly grants to Texas universities, scientists and companies in several different categories, including faculty support, faculty recruitment and product development.

Many of the 73 grants given in the most recent funding round mirror awards given by other large research investment organizations. Proven concepts and legacy cancer investigators at major Texas research universities were awarded millions of dollars to continue research that will likely yield results.

But CPRIT recognized that sometimes the best ideas are the ones coming out of left field. And the High Impact/High Risk award was born.

“It’s one of the most important grants,” said CPRIT chief scientific officer James Willson. “It’s trying to identify researchers who are new to cancer who have great ideas but need seed funding.”

The organization gave out 28 such awards in the latest grant announcement on Aug. 18, totaling nearly $7 million. In doing so, CPRIT is labeling the future stars of cancer research.

The grants are smaller than others CPRIT offers — $250,000, only a fraction of the $14.4 million grant it awarded to Dallas biotechnology company Dialectic Therapeutics Inc. for clinical development of its new cancer treatment.

For researchers like Tambar, however, the two-year seed funding serves as a hard-to-come-by starting block.

“This idea was something I had been thinking about for a while, but it wasn’t obvious to me what funding mechanism we would qualify for,” Tambar said.

About 15 minutes northeast of Tambar’s Dallas lab, Southern Methodist University researcher Zhihao Wu found himself asking the same question last year.

Wu, an assistant professor of biological sciences who joined the university in 2020, had an idea for research into glioblastoma, a brain and spinal cord cancer, based on his previous studies of age-related neurological diseases.

Glioblastomas represent 15% of all primary brain tumors and cause debilitating symptoms ranging from nausea to balance difficulties, the American Brain Tumor Association said. Fighting the cancer is challenging because some cells don’t respond to more traditional therapies.

The scientist was optimistic about applying his neurological knowledge to this problem. But he wasn’t a cancer researcher. His support options were limited.

So he applied for a High Risk/High Impact grant and, to his surprise, won SMU its first-ever CPRIT award. “Brain cancer is definitely new for us,” he said following the announcement.

Packed into a tiny lab in the heart of the Dedman Life Sciences Building, Wu and his team check daily on cancer cells they’re growing in petri dishes stored in small refrigerators. It’s an unassuming location for research that could change the way the science community thinks of glioblastoma treatment.

That’s the case for many scientists facing down the daunting task of identifying cancer treatments. Texas’ High Risk/High Impact grant recipients are located in labs all over the state, spending their days under fumigation hoods and hunched over composition notebooks. READ MORE