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Inroads E-Newsletter

June 2020


$792K ACS Grant to Help Metastatic Cancer Patients Understand/Access Palliative Care

Michael Hoerger, PhD, and Laura Perry, MS
Michael Hoerger, PhD, MSCR, credits a multidisciplinary collaborative team, including doctoral student Laura Perry, MS, (left) with the award of a major American Cancer Society research grant to help metastatic cancer patients better understand and access palliative care.  (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)


The American Cancer Society has funded over 100 research grants at Tulane over the past 70 years. Their latest — a four-year, $792,000 award to Michael Hoerger, PhD, MSCR, assistant professor of psychology, psychiatry and oncology — is the largest to the University in the past decade and third largest of all time. It is meant to help metastatic cancer patients better understand and access palliative care.

Palliative care involves a multidisciplinary team that aims to improve quality of life for seriously ill patients and their families. Dr. Hoerger’s research shows that palliative care reduces the emotional and physical burden of cancer, but few patients have heard of it or how it can help, and therefore most never seek it out. And some even fear it.

Through previous research - supported in part by pilot awards from the Louisiana Clinical and Translational Science Center, the Louisiana Cancer Research Center, and the Louisiana Board of Regents - Hoerger's team found that an educational webpage greatly improved attitudes toward palliative care. Then - through the use of talented voice actors and principles of psychology and marketing - they adapted that intervention into a video suitable for viewing on a tablet in clinical settings. The video was developed with input from patients, caregivers and oncologists and provides local information on palliative care, is sensitive to the emotional context, and is tailored to the patient’s levels of education and health literacy. In pre- and post-clinical pilot studies on the video, the team found preliminary evidence of its efficacy in improving palliative care understanding and attitudes.

This ACS award will expand upon these preliminary findings by funding a randomized clinical trial to begin this fall. The trial will enroll 172 racially and socioeconomically diverse metastatic cancer patients in the New Orleans area. Control participants will receive usual care and additional healthcare-related brochures. Intervention participants will receive usual care plus the video. Family caregivers can join if desired.

"We will track patient-reported outcomes and palliative care utilization for six months," said Dr. Hoerger. "If effective, we plan to conduct a follow-up study rolling out the intervention broadly to improve palliative care utilization nationwide. Our hope is that this grant will revolutionize serious illness care by shifting people’s mindsets from fearing palliative care to embracing it.”

As a clinical health psychologist, Dr. Hoerger leads the health psychology doctoral concentration in the Department of Psychology. He says this project would be impossible without extraordinary multidisciplinary collaborators, including Sonia Malhotra, MD, MS; John Lefante, PhD; Oliver Sartor, MD; Laura Perry, MS, and many talented undergraduates.

As the Director of Palliative Medicine & Supportive Care at University Medical Center, Dr. Malhotra notes, “The work that Dr. Hoerger is focusing on is vitally important to ensure patients with metastatic cancer have access to palliative medicine, which focuses on quality-of-life challenges, including symptom management, communication and emotional support” 

Tulane Scientists Find a Switch to Flip and Turn off Breast Cancer Growth and Metastasis

Reza Izadpanah
Dr. Reza Izadpanah is an assistant professor of medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine (Story by Carolyn Scofield)


Researchers at Tulane University School of Medicine identified a gene that causes an aggressive form of breast cancer to rapidly grow. More importantly, they have also discovered a way to “turn it off” and inhibit cancer from occurring. The animal study results have been so compelling that the team is now working on FDA approval to begin clinical trials and has published details in the journal Scientific Reports.

The team led by Dr. Reza Izadpanah examined the role two genes, including one whose involvement in cancer was discovered by Tulane researchers, play in causing triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). TNBC is considered to be the most aggressive of breast cancers, with a much poorer prognosis for treatment and survival. Izadpanah’s team specifically identified an inhibitor of the TRAF3IP2 gene, which was proven to suppress the growth and spread (metastasis) of TNBC in mouse models that closely resemble humans.

In parallel studies looking at a duo of genes - TRAF3IP2 and Rab27a, which play roles in the secretion of substances that can cause tumor formation – the research teams studied what happens when they were stopped from functioning. Suppressing the expression of either gene led to a decline in both tumor growth and the spread of cancer to other organs. Izadpanah says that when Rab27a was silenced, the tumor did not grow but was still spreading a small number of cancer cells to other parts of the body. However, when the TRAF3IP2 gene was turned off, they found no spread (known as “metastasis” or “micrometastasis”) of the original tumor cells for a full year following the treatment. Even more beneficial, inhibiting the TRAF3IP2 gene not only stopped future tumor growth but caused existing tumors to shrink to undetectable levels.

“Our findings show that both genes play a role in breast cancer growth and metastasis,” says Izadpanah. “While targeting Rab27a delays progression of tumor growth, it fails to affect the spread of tiny amounts of cancer cells, or micrometastasis. On the contrary, targeting TRAF3IP2 suppresses tumor growth and spread, and interfering with it both shrinks pre-formed tumors and prevents additional spread. This exciting discovery has revealed that TRAF3IP2 can play a role as a novel therapeutic target in breast cancer treatment.”

“It is important to note that this discovery is the result of a truly collaborative effort between basic science researchers and clinicians.” Izadpanah continued. Members of the team included Eckhard Alt, David Jansen, Abigail Chaffin, Stephen Braun, Aaron Dumont, Ricardo Mostany and Matthew Burow of Tulane University. Dr. Bysani Chandrasekar of the University of Missouri has joined in the Tulane research efforts and found that targeting TRAF3IP2 can stop the spread of glioblastoma, a deadly brain cancer with limited treatment options. The team is now working on getting FDA approval and hopes to begin clinical trials soon.

$100K Kay Yow Cancer Fund Grant to Raise Clinical Trial Awareness In Minority Patients

Kay Yow Cancer Fund Logo

The Kay Yow Cancer Fund®, in partnership with The V Foundation for Cancer Research, has awarded Tulane Cancer Center a $100,000 grant to enhance cancer clinical trial awareness and outreach among minority patients.

Aniko Vigh, MD, director of Tulane Cancer Center's Office of Clinical Research, is principal investigator on the project. "Tulane clinical faculty serve a diverse population that is largely ethnic minority - 60% African American, 6% Hispanic, and 3% Asian," said Vigh. "Although Tulane has a history of strong enrollment of ethnic minority patients into clinical trials, participation is declining, and only 25% of total accruals for 2019 were minority patients."

It's important that participants in clinical trials represent as closely as possible the population of patients that will ultimately use the medical products being studied, because people of different ages, races and ethnicities may react differently to various medications. However, this is often not the case; racial and ethnic minorities are chronically underrepresented, due largely to lack of communication, misconception of clinical research and limited funding for education and outreach.

"Health disparities in general is a major area of emphasis for the Tulane Cancer Center, and this declining enrollment is a priority issue," said Vigh.

Integral to the proposed project is a patient navigator with extensive training in cultural competence assigned specifically to cancer clinical research. The navigator will help identify and approach prospective study patients; build a close relationship with them, their caregivers and family members; and serve as an essential link between the patient and the study team.

The navigator will be fully integrated into how each trial will be explained, including the inclusion/exclusion criteria; the therapeutic options for the patient; the benefits, risks and uncertainties of participation in the trial; the placebo arm (if any); the costs associated with participation (if any), etc. The navigator will also explain the types of trials available, how approaches to clinical research have changed over time and that participation is voluntary.

"Approaching minority patients can be challenging. Some still remember past abuses, like the Tuskegee experiment," said Vigh. "The clinical research navigator will emphasize that today’s clinical trials are federally regulated and that codes and ethics are in place to protect clinical research participants from harm."

Once a patient is enrolled, the navigator will work with the research team to retain patients on studies. He/she will help to make clinical appointments, send reminders to patients and navigate them through the clinical environment, as well as help with other needs, including transportation, lodging arrangements, caretaker education, billing and insurance issues, etc.

"Historically, Tulane Cancer Center has achieved strong enrollment into clinical trials among uninsured and ethnic minority patients when proper support personnel have been in place," said Vigh. "Funding for a clinical research navigator will enable us to fulfill our commitment to provide state-of-the-art cancer treatment and prevention trials to minority patients and the socio-economically disadvantaged population in New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast community. We are enormously grateful to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund and The V Foundation for making this possible."

Annually, the Kay Yow Cancer Fund supports a cancer research-based grant in the host city of the NCAA Women’s Final Four. New Orleans was to have been the host city of the 2020 tournament prior to its cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kay Yow Cancer Fund works in collaboration with The V Foundation Scientific Advisory Board to identify and review grant proposals supporting women’s cancer research.

The late Kay Yow, former North Carolina State University head women's basketball coach, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987 and battled the disease until her passing in 2009. In the midst of her fight, she gave her final and lasting gift — the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. In the 12 years since the Fund's inception, $7.78 million has been awarded to scientific research grants and programs that serve the underserved in the fight against ALL cancers affecting women.

Fruit Flies Help Shed Light on Tumor Formation, Migration and Growth

Drosophila Tumor

A Drosophila tumor induced by Dr. Wu-Min Deng's research team helps to answer questions about how cancerous cells form, grow and metastasize.  (Photo provided by Dr. Deng.)


What can the common fruit fly teach us about cancer?

"Over the last few decades, the fruit fly - Drosophila melanogaster - has become a successful model for studying human cancers," said Wu-Min Deng, PhD, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and the Gerald and Flora Jo Mansfield Piltz Professor of Cancer Research.

In fact, Deng says many cancer-related genes in humans are named after genes in flies, where they were first identified, and the model is helping to shed light on how tumors form, how they migrate, and how they behave.

"It's not a well-known model for cancer studies, because they don’t look like humans," said Deng. "There are even oncologists who don't realize we are using a fly model for basic cancer research, but the genetic simplicity and vast arsenal of genetic tools available in Drosophila provide a unique opportunity to address questions regarding cancer initiation and progression that would be extremely challenging in other model systems."

The simplicity of the Drosophila model is just one of its advantages, according to Deng. While its genetic makeup is much simpler than other organisms, many of the genes and pathways involved in human disease, particularly cancer, play similar roles in the fly, making it an excellent option for biologic discovery. Their systems are easier to manipulate, allowing researchers to generate mutations and target overexpression more easily. And because their life cycle is very short and they reproduce quickly, Deng's team can induce tumors to grow within a couple of days and manipulate fly larvae to carry the same tumor as the parent.

The Deng Lab's recent work involving isolating Drosophila ovaries for genetic sequencing of the various cells involved in oogenesis was recently featured on the home page of the online journal PLOS Biology.

"We use a few different fruit fly tissues to model growth regulation and tumor formation," said Deng. "Ovary is one. Ovaries produce functional eggs for the next generation. The process is very elaborate and involves interaction between several different cell types within the organ. But the process is also regulated by other systems, so this collaboration can be analyzed. We study what kind of cells types are there, the different genes expressed, and what kinds of signaling might be involved. We feel this project will be a good resource to the field. Anyone who wants to use this model to do any type of developmental or cancer studies can refer to our paper."

Deng moved his lab to Tulane from Florida State University a little less than a year ago. Since his arrival, he has begun to explore opportunities to interact and hopefully collaborate with fellow Tulane researchers using other model systems. His team is currently working on a new manuscript looking at how cell growth is regulated normally and how disruption can lead to tumor formation in the Drosophila model. "I am very fortunate to have a group of people in my lab who have worked tirelessly to make this project possible," said Deng.

Previous Issues...

May 2020
Tulane Seeks Recovered COVID-19 Patients to Volunteer as Plasma Donors for Clinical Trial
A Ray of Hope in the Crisis, Dr. Kendra Harris Shines Light on Needs of Healthcare Providers
ACS Grant to Help Cancer Patients Overcome Transportation Barriers Especially Critical Now
Study Targeting Tumor Genetic Mutations Yields ‘Practice Changing’ Results for Prostate Cancer Treatment
Gunning for a Cure 2020 Raises $220K for Prostate Cancer Research

February 2020
Spike in U.S. Colorectal Cancer Rates From Age 49 to 50 Suggests Many Cases Likely Undiagnosed Before Screenings
Gunning for a Cure: Making a "Tremendous Difference" to Prostate Cancer Research
Radiation Oncologist Audrey Dang Returns to NOLA / Joins Tulane's Team
Death by Chocolate: A Sweet (and Savory!) Success
Pink Games Initiative Sets New Record in Effort to Assist Local Cancer Patients

January 2020
Radiation Oncology to Unveil New Linear Accelerator / Patient Care Area
Krewe de Pink Presents Death by Chocolate
Tulane Health First in Region to Offer Focal Therapy for Prostate Cancer

December 2019
Our Year in Review

November 2019
Kidney Cancer Day: Connecting Patients to Care Teams
Tulane Researcher is Editor of Journal Issue Honoring 40th Anniversary of Key Cancer Discovery
Pickup Truck for the Cure Raffle Extended - Winner to be Pulled June 1, 2020

October 2019
Tulane Study Reveals Dim Light at Night May Promote Breast Cancer Metastasis to Bone
Cancer Cells Turn to Cannibalism to Survive Chemotherapy
Tulane School of Medicine Welcomes Neuro-Oncologist Christopher Trevino, MD
Sixth Annual NOLA Bluedoo Raises $143K for Prostate Cancer Research
Cancer Crusaders Support Research/Celebrate Life at Annual Luncheon
Blue Ribbon Soiree Closing in on $1 Million Raised for Prostate Cancer Initiatives
Krewe de Pink Continues Their Support of Breast Cancer Research with $35K Gift

August 2019
Tulane Lakeside Hospital Now Offering 3D Breast Biopsy
16 Tulane Cancer Center Faculty Named "Top Docs" by New Orleans Magazine

July 2019
Flemington Team Awarded $2.3 Million For Virus-Related Malignancies Research
Our Summer Drive is ON!
Bryan Subaru / LLS Distribute Blankets, Art Kits & Messages of Hope to Cancer Patients

May 2019
Win a Truck & Help Cure Prostate Cancer
Researcher's Publication Honored as "Top 100" by Scientific Reports
New Multidisciplinary Prostate Cancer Clinic Enhances Care / Convenience
In the Pink: 4th Annual Pink Bra Run Raises Spirits/Funds for Breast Cancer Research
Cancer Crusaders Raise $171K for Tulane/LSU Cancer Research Programs

April 2019
Researcher Awarded $1.8 Million NCI Grant to Study New Targets for Rare Pediatric Cancer
Meet Us at the Levee: Pink Bra Run to Benefit Breast Cancer Research!
2019 One Man Shoot Continues the Mission - Making a Difference in Fighting Prostate Cancer

March 2019
Exploring "Dark Matter of Genomes" Could Shed Light on Cancer Risk
Joe W. & Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation Grant Supports Training of Aspiring Female Scientists
Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month Q & A - "Screening Saves Lives"

February 2019
Improving Access to Care Top Priority for New Genitourinary Cancers Expert
Study Finds Genetic Risks Associated With Prostate Cancer are Underestimated
Greenberg Family Endowment Boosts Fight Against Prostate Cancer
8th Annual One Man Shoot: Proving "One Man Can Make a Difference"
Gunning for a Cure Sets New Record, Raising $220K for Prostate Cancer Research
Tulane Medical Students Raise Money for Pediatric Cancer Research

January 2019
New Gynecologic Oncologist Aims to Reduce Cervical Cancer Rates in NOLA
Tulane Study Finds Potential Role for Personality Psychology in Cancer Care
Sixth Annual Gunning for a Cure Benefits Prostate Cancer Research
Student Athletes Provide Much-Needed Financial Assistance to Cancer Patients

December 2018
Improving Early Prostate Cancer Detection: Latest Technology Combines Imaging/Biopsy Tools to Improve Accuracy of Diagnosis
Advanced Cancer Patients Can Live Longer with Palliative Care, Tulane Study Says
Serve and Assist: Student Athletes Raise Funds for Patient Relief

November 2018
Prostate Cancer Patients Target of New $1.6M Tulane Study
Tulane Opens Novocure Trial for Patients with Stage 4 Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
The Great American Smokeout ® - Quitting Starts Here!
8th Annual Blue Ribbon Soiree Sets Record, Raising $130K for Prostate Cancer Research
Krewe de Pink Celebrates New Orleans-Style, Donating $35K to Breast Cancer Research!

October 2018
Researcher Examines Role of DNA-Damaging Elements in Aging/Age-Related Diseases
Lynch Syndrome Can Lead to Cancer — Why Physicians Don't Test For It
Fifth NOLA Bluedoo a Record-Setting Success - Raises $193K for Prostate Cancer Research

August 2018
Tulane Cancer Center to Host Free Prostate Cancer Seminar
Fifth Annual NOLA Bluedoo Celebrates Prostate Cancer Survivorship New Orleans-Style
Tulane Doctor Elected to Elite Surgery College

July 2018
Tulane Welcomes Kendra Harris, MD, MSc - New Interim Chair of Radiation Oncology
Nakhle Saba Receives Ladies Leukemia League Grant to Study New Target for ALL
Bryan Subaru & LLS Bring Comfort to Patients Through Subaru Loves to Care Initiative

June 2018
Repurposed Drug Approach May Halt Spread of Cancer Cells
Tulane Head and Neck Experts Lead Call for HPV Vaccines
American Cancer Society Updates Colorectal Cancer Screening Guidelines

May 2018
Tulane Cancer Center Now Offering Imaging Tool to Detect Recurring Prostate Cancer
Grant Supports Smoking Cessation Education for Outpatient Mental Health Facilities
It's All About the Pink - Third Annual Pink Bra Run Supports Breast Cancer Research
Cancer Crusaders Donate $169,000 to Tulane/LSU Cancer Research Programs

April 2018
Grant Supports Smoking Cessation Program for Newly Diagnosed Cancer Patients
Med Student Takes Top Honors at Recent Meeting
State Rep. Julie Stokes to Lead 3rd Annual Pink Bra 5K Fun Run
7th Annual One Man Shoot Raises $130,000 for Prostate Cancer Research
Grant Supports Smoking Cessation Program For Newly Diagnosed Cancer Patients

March 2018
Researcher Explores Unique Genetic Mutation Associated with Liver Cancer
Healing Hands Across the Divide: Evolving to Address Cancer Disparities
Gunning for a Cure Raises $192K for Prostate Cancer Research

February 2018
Tulane Oncologist Outlines Prostate Cancer Treatment Advances in New England Journal of Medicine
Pink Games raise money — and hope — for patients fighting cancer

May 25, 2017
Prostate Cancer Immunotherapy Works Better for African-American Men
Cancer Crusaders Present Check for $210K
Free Skin Cancer Screenings Offered at Downtown Dermatology Clinic
National Cancer Survivor's Day
Celebration Planned
Second Annual Pink Bra Run -
Great Fun for a Great Cause

April 25, 2017
"Scarless Thyroid Surgery" on Agenda at Thyroid/Parathyroid & Skin Malignancies Symposia
Free Skin Cancer Screenings Offered at Covington Clinic
Second Annual Pink Bra Run Scheduled for Mother's Day Weekend

April 11, 2017
Tulane Researcher Shows Education Can Ease Fear in Cancer Patients
Thanks A Million!

March 10, 2017
Komen Grant Supports Study of Ductal Carcinoma In Situ
One Man Can Make a Difference: 6th Annual One Man Shoot Takes Aim at Prostate Cancer
2017 Gunning for a Cure Fundraiser Exceeds $500,000 Goal!

February 16, 2017
Leading Study Backs Hormone Therapy With Radiation for Recurrent Prostate Cancer
Victory Bell: Donation Helps Cancer Patients Celebrate Survivorship

February 3, 2017
Genetic Counselors Help Patients Better Understand Inherited Cancer Risk
Perez Family Targets Prostate Cancer Through Sporting Clays Event

January 26, 2017
Tulane Researchers Find Tumor-Suppressing Protein Actually Promotes Cancer
Tickled Pink: Local Student Athletes Assist Breast Cancer Patients