The University of Kentucky has received $11.2 million from the National Institutes of Health to finance a new center that studies the links between obesity and cancer.
The grant will finance the UK Center for Cancer and Metabolism over the next five years.
The center will focus on the underlying mechanisms that link dysfunctional metabolism to cancer. Recent studies have shown that the mitochondria of cells can influence how aggressive a cancer becomes. Kentucky has some of the nation’s highest rates in the country of both obesity and certain types of cancer. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kentucky ranks first in the nation in incidences of colorectal cancer in men and women, and seventh in deaths. People who are obese are about 30 percent more likely to develop that kind of cancer.
The center will be led by program directors Daret St. Clair, the James Graham Brown Foundation Endowed Chair in the UK department of toxicology and cancer biology, and Peter Zhou, a professor in the department of molecular and cellular biochemistry.
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“Having the kind of environment where learning and collaboration are placed at the forefront is why we were chosen for this grant, and we hope to continue that throughout the life of this center,” St. Clair said. “It will also enable us to reach out to new and talented researchers who want to come to UK to become new project leaders and continue the work we’re doing.”
Four junior researchers, Travis Thomas, Yadi Wu, Ren Zu and Kate Zaytseva, will work on major projects at the center that focus on treatments in breast cancer and colorectal cancer.
“Research is at the heart of any progress we hope to make in bridging health gaps in the commonwealth,” said Lisa Cassis, UK vice president for research. “Increased funding opportunities ... will enable the university to foster the development of the next generation of scientists who will lead our efforts in translating basic research findings into promising new therapies.”
Cassis recently penned an essay about the proposed cuts to NIH funding in President Donald Trump’s federal budget, which would slash about 20 percent, or $5.8 billion, from the nation’s largest funding provider for scientific research.
Cassis said that if Trump’s budget cuts to NIH were enacted, UK’s federal funding would shrink from $92.4 million in 2016 to $75 million, with 219 jobs lost.
“It is not just reductions in NIH funding that are important; it is the types of research that would be reduced if these reductions were realized,” Cassis wrote. “This is especially important, as health conditions that devastate our citizens exist at higher rates in Kentucky than the rest of the U.S. More Kentuckians die of cancer, and Kentucky ranks in the top 10 in heart attacks, drug deaths, strokes, diabetes, cardiovascular deaths and obesity.”
UK officials said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell contacted the NIH in support of the grant. In March, the Kentucky Republican said he didn’t support Trump’s proposed cuts to medical research funding.
“Over the years, UK and its Markey Cancer Center have developed one of the strongest cancer research, prevention and treatment programs in the country, as demonstrated by the Center’s 2013 NIH National Cancer Institute designation, which I was proud to support,” McConnell said Monday at UK’s announcement of the grant. “I was also pleased to assist UK in securing this competitive grant to advance and strengthen this critical health research for Kentucky by enabling advanced research focusing on the development of novel therapies for cancer treatment.”