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Massey merges two existing research programs into new Cancer Biology program

Azeddine Atfi appointed as program leader

Azeddine Atfi, Ph.D.

VCU Massey Cancer Center has merged two of its existing research programs into the newly established Cancer Biology (CB) program. The former Cancer Cell Signaling (CCS) and Cancer Molecular Genetics (CMG) research programs have been consolidated into one new program, which will be led by Massey researcher Azeddine Atfi, Ph.D.

“The creation of a single CB program in place of the CCS and CMG programs best reflects our current strengths and successfully positions Massey for future growth,” said Robert Winn, M.D., director of Massey Cancer Center and senior associate dean for cancer innovation at the VCU School of Medicine. “As we strive to achieve Comprehensive Cancer Center status from the National Cancer Institute, this combined program will allow us to fortify our collaborative cancer research efforts and put forward the strongest possible competitive application for the NCI Cancer Center Support Grant in 2022.”

The merger of the CCS and CMG programs into a single CB program is supported by the National Cancer Institute and Massey’s External Advisory Board. The merger will enhance program cohesion and will be organized around three specific goals with additional underlying themes.

“By organizing the CB program around three specific aims with complementary themes, the disconnect sometimes experienced through two separate cancer research programs will be eliminated as Massey members will be brought together under a much tighter organizational structure that creates closely aligned working groups,” said Atfi, who is also the chair of the Division of Cellular and Molecular Pathogenesis and a professor of pathology in the Department of Pathology at the VCU School of Medicine.

The first goal of the CB program is to identify and characterize the changes in key signaling networks that drive cancer development and progression. This goal will be organized around multiple themes, including: 1) the role of bioactive lipids in breast and lung cancer; 2) the genetic mechanisms involved in the most common form of liver cancer; 3) the genetic signaling pathways that cause cancer; and 4) the underlying systems of cancer cachexia (the loss of fat and muscle due to chronic disease).

The second goal of the CB program is to better understand the genetic and epigenetic (changes in gene function that are heritable but that are not attributed to alterations of the DNA sequence) factors involved in cancer formation and progression. This aim includes: 1) identifying cancer-causing genes as therapeutic targets; 2) studying tumor suppressor genes and cell cycle control, epigenetics and the regulation of gene expression; 3) determining the factors that promote breast cancer metastasis (spread); and 4) understanding the viral mechanisms associated with tumor formation.

The third major goal of the CB program is to investigate the molecular functions that control the complex interactions between cancer cells, immune cells and connective tissue cells.

At Massey’s 2020 External Advisory Board meeting, the EAB agreed that merging the CCS and CMG research programs would help strengthen both programs by demonstrating more robust cancer research focus, cohesion, leadership and concentrated research themes.

Before joining VCU in 2018, Atfi served for seven years as a tenured professor and director of the Tumor Cell Biology program of the Cancer Center and Research Institute at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He has served as an ad hoc reviewer for many NCI study sections and was recently appointed as a permanent member on the Tumor Progression and Metastasis study section. Atfi consistently publishes his work in high-profile journals, including Cancer Cell, Nature Cell Biology, Molecular Cell, Developmental Cell, Science Signaling, EMBO Journal and PNAS, and currently holds three R01 grants from the NCI.

Atfi’s research is largely focused on proteins involved in the progression of pancreatic cancer and comorbidities associated with the disease, such as diabetes and weight loss, to inform the development of novel immunotherapies. He has been working on a specific protein called transforming growth factor beta (TGF-b) that initiates a cell signaling pathway to promote cancer progression. By targeting the specific activity of TGF-b, Atfi hopes to develop immunotherapies that can slow, alter or prevent the formation of pancreatic cancer cells. In collaboration with other Massey investigators, Atfi discovered that another pro-malignant protein called Twist1 can drive muscle wasting and weight loss in mice. By inhibiting Twist1 in mice with pancreatic cancer, he and his research team prevented weight loss and, as a result, increased survival. They are working to initiate clinical trials using combinations of biospecific antibodies as an immunotherapeutic approach to block muscle wasting and increase survival in pancreatic cancer patients.

“Given his extensive expertise in supervising several programs at both the national and international levels as well as his high-profile contribution to science, Atfi is highly qualified to lead the CB program,” Winn said. “He brings leadership experience and scientific knowledge that will help advance Massey’s lifesaving cancer research.”

Written by: Blake Belden

Posted on: November 10, 2020