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Massey and Wright Center developing next-generation model for cancer research training program

Devanand Sarkar, MBBS, Ph.D., and Joyce Lloyd, Ph.D.

Faculty members at VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research are expanding the curriculum for the Cancer and Molecular Medicine (CAMM) Ph.D. program at VCU to better meet the nation’s needs for the next generation of cancer scientists.

Backed by a two-year, $324,000 R25 grant from the National Cancer Institute, Devanand Sarkar, MBBS, Ph.D., associate director for training and education and Harrison Foundation Distinguished Professor in Cancer Research at Massey and a Wright Center mentor, and Joyce Lloyd, Ph.D., research member at Massey, Wright Center mentor and vice chair for education and faculty affairs of the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics at the VCU School of Medicine, will implement an updated translational science academic concentration to better align predoctoral students with the modern scope of cancer research and clinical care. This grant resulted from a collaboration between Massey and the Wright Center and helps strengthen cooperation between these two VCU entities.

The development of cutting-edge technology and novel algorithms that allow for the large-scale analysis of data from thousands of patients, including DNA sequencing and bioinformatics, have greatly enhanced the comprehensive understanding of how cancer grows and spreads. Likewise, the rise of highly effective cancer therapies, including immunotherapies and small molecule inhibitors, and advanced imaging technologies directly correlate to earlier diagnosis, better prognosis and increased patient survival.

Co-directed by Sarkar and Lloyd, the CAMM concentration at the Wright Center is designed to provide Ph.D. and M.D.-Ph.D. students with training in basic cancer and molecular biology with a strong emphasis on translational applications of training. Current academic programs for predoctoral cancer scientists offer students an incomplete introduction to the vast and continuously growing landscape of clinical and translational research.

“There is an unmet need for a comprehensive curriculum in translational oncology that provides well-rounded knowledge of basic and translational research, community engagement and cancer bioinformatics to predoctoral students,” said Sarkar, a member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at Massey and professor in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics at the VCU School of Medicine. “The next generation of cancer researchers now needs not only to understand basic cancer biology but also must grasp the translational applications of laboratory-based findings and the appropriate use of bioinformatics analyses.”

With funding initiated in June 2020, this grant is aimed at expanding and strengthening the existing CAMM program at VCU to create a more comprehensive curriculum for training career cancer scientists. The overall goal of expanding the translational cancer program is to broadly educate trainees to work in diverse teams integrating basic research, patient-oriented research and population-based research, with the long-term aim of advancing public health. The proposed courses involved in this new curriculum will apply innovative approaches to transdisciplinary topics, integrate clinical and academic environments and engage trainees in broadening their approach to clinical and translational research. Students will also be given the tools and experience to conceive and develop clinical trials derived from laboratory science.

“Although it is not possible for every cancer researcher to be an expert in basic cancer biology, translational approaches, bioinformatics and community engagement, it is important for trainees to be exposed to all of these important aspects of cancer research to allow them to communicate with colleagues in these various disciplines,” Lloyd said. “This unique exposure will equip graduate students with a comprehensive breadth of knowledge and experience, thereby facilitating establishment of a successful career as a cancer researcher capable of conducting translational science.”

In addition, CAMM will allow aspiring cancer researchers to engage with and educate the community, better understand the impact of their work and obtain experience mentoring the next generation of scientists.

The hope is that once the curriculum is successfully implemented at VCU it can serve as a model for other translational cancer research programs nationwide.

Sarkar and Lloyd will serve as co-principal investigators on the grant.

Co-investigators include J. Christian Barrett, M.D., medical hematologist-oncologist at Massey, Mikhail Dozmorov, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at Massey, Maghboeba Mosavel, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at Massey, Pamela Dillon, of the VCU Wright Center, Hsin-Ling Hung, Ph.D., of the Center on Health Disparities at VCU, Kenneth Foster, Ed.D., and Sally Santen, M.D., Ph.D., of the VCU School of Medicine.

Written by: Blake Belden

Posted on: July 2, 2020