MHIR awarded $1.9M by the National Institutes of Health

June 30, 2020

The MaineHealth Institute for Research (MHIR) has been awarded a five-year, $1.9 million grant by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NCI). The funding supports research into how fat cells cause tumor cells to resist current treatments for the incurable blood cancer multiple myeloma. The results of the study also may apply to many other types of cancers.

Multiple myeloma is a cancer that causes blood cells to grow uncontrollably and crowd out other blood cells in the bone marrow, leading to low blood cell counts, deterioration of bone, infection, and organ shut-down. Although there are many therapies for myeloma, there is no cure because the tumor cells evolve and become resistant to treatment. This evolution is often driven by the healthy cells surrounding the tumor cells, which are co-opted by tumor cells and used for their own good.

Obesity is a well-known risk factor for multiple myeloma and other cancers. Research indicates that fat cells directly support myeloma cells by increasing fatty-acid binding proteins. Those proteins appear to protect the cancer cells from anti-cancer drugs. Funding from the NCI grant will support new research by Principal Investigator Michaela Reagan, PhD, a faculty scientist at MHIR, as she examines how fat cells create that drug-resistant protein. Reagan also hopes to discover vulnerabilities in other cancer cells that grow in the bone marrow.

“By figuring out how tumor cells evade cancer drugs, we are discovering their vulnerabilities and engineering novels ways to target the cancer,” Reagan said.

The funding from the NCI comes in the form of a Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award, a prestigious grant selectively given to investigators within the first 10 years of their post-doctoral career that offers them the opportunity to extend the five-year grant by an additional two years. Reagan has been a faculty scientist at MHIR since 2015. She received her doctorate from the Tufts University School of Biomedical Engineering in 2011 and finished a post-doctoral fellowship in the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in 2015.

“Michaela Reagan is a valuable asset to the state of Maine. She is making an important contribution to the science of blood and bone cancers,” said Maine Medical Center Chief Academic Officer Doug Sawyer, MD, PhD. “This MERIT Award speaks to the quality of her work and the caliber of scientists we are able to recruit, mentor and support here at MHIR and throughout the MaineHealth system.”

Reagan is expected to begin this research project this month.

The research described is supported by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R37CA245330. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.