UAMS announces vice chancellor for research, $1.47 million cancer grant awarded

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The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) named internationally renowned Shuk-Mei Ho, Ph.D., as its vice chancellor for research.

“We could not be more fortunate to have a leader of Dr. Ho’s caliber joining our team,” said UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, M.D., MBA. “Her close to four decades of leadership experience in academic medicine will be an invaluable asset to our institution as we explore new frontiers in science to improve the health of all Arkansans.”

Since 2005, Ho was the Jacob G. Schmidlapp Professor and chairwoman of the Department of Environmental Health, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. She recruited over two dozen faculty members, and successfully renewed three times an Environmental Health Sciences Center grant named Center for Environmental Genetics (P30), funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

She built a Council on Education for Public Health-accredited Public Health Program, ushered in next-generation sequencing and big data science, and brought in close to $40 million in external funding for research and infrastructure advancement to the university, according to her bio.

In 2011, she was appointed director of Cincinnati Cancer Center and later named the Hayden Family Endowed Chair for Cancer Research. She led consortium members in the Cincinnati Children Hospital Medical Center, UCHealth, and the University of Cincinnati work towards the goal of attaining NCI designation.

Prior to Cincinnati, Ho’s experience includes the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where she was vice chair for research in the Department of Surgery and director for translational research in urological disorders. She also served Tufts University as associate dean for research in the School of Graduate Studies, Research and Continuing Education.

“I look forward to leading UAMS to the next level of research excellence,” said Ho. “Together, we will tackle broad tasks like reducing health disparities in underserved populations, establishing a leading-edge research in digital health, as well as undertake specific goals such as National Cancer Institute cancer center designation for the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.”

Ho received her bachelor’s and doctoral degree from the University of Hong Kong. Her research interests pertain to the role of hormones and endocrine disruptors, and the interplay between genetics and epigenetics, in disease development as well as how early-life experiences can be a root cause in later development of cancers, asthma, neural disorders and other complex chronic diseases.

Her work – published in more than 240 articles – has pioneered the fields of environmental epigenetics and developmental origins of adult disease. This body of highly innovative and paradigm-changing research has advanced basic science and catalyzed major changes in public health and medical practices in the nation and around the globe, UAMS officials said.

UAMS also announced that it has been awarded a $1.47 million grant from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to continue a clinical trial to determine if new approaches can be developed to monitor and screen for lung cancer with a blood test.

Physician-scientist Donald J. Johann Jr., M.D., an associate professor in the UAMS departments of Biomedical Informatics and Internal Medicine will lead the project.

“We’re coming into the long-promised ‘future’ of cancer treatment,” Johann said. “For the last 50 years, the holy grail of cancer research has been being able to detect the presence of cancer with a simple blood test, known as a liquid biopsy, and treat cancer patients on an individualized basis, which is precision medicine.”

“Recent advancements in genetic sequencing technology, computational science and the ability to manage massive amounts of data have made this type of research possible,” he said. “The vision is to combine the power of these approaches with clinical knowledge to improve outcomes. This is the future of cancer medicine, and it’s all doable.”

An innovative and important aspect of this approach is called bioinformatics, a new field in research that uses computational tools to assess medical and public health information, often on a large scale, looking for previously unrecognized patterns that can affect medical and public health science in a broad range of ways.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States and the world, and the incidence in Arkansas has been higher than the national average for the past 20 years.

Researchers believe precision medicine is key to changing these statistics. The current standard treatment for early stage lung cancer is surgical removal of the tumor, with the addition of chemotherapy/radiation when the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. However, the cancer often returns after two to the three years and is deadly.

With Johann’s clinical trial, the surgeons are taking samples of the tumor at the time of its removal. Back in the lab, Johann’s team runs genetic sequencing on the tumor and re-growing it using different methods. Once the sample tumors are big enough, the team tests existing drugs and novel combinations of existing drugs on the tumors to find the most effective treatment.

This information is analyzed and stored so that if that individual patient’s cancer comes back, their doctors will know the best medicines to use.

The information is also compiled in large datasets so that researchers can look for aggregate patterns and identify trends regarding which treatments work best for different types of tumors. The idea is that now scientists will be able to genetically test a tumor to identify the best course of treatment for that individual patient.

“The collaborative element to this is very important. We are working with three very prestigious, NCI-comprehensive cancer centers to accelerate the development of liquid biopsies for cancer treatment guidance and less invasive clinical care,” Johann said. “We want to catch disease early and operate on it for cure, be able to monitor it effectively, develop model systems effectively and then look at potential therapies to see what would be the best treatment for each patient, instead of just giving everyone the standard treatment.”

Johann’s work on lung cancer has been underway for three years. During previous phases, his team developed the advanced bioinformatics and infrastructure at UAMS that are necessary to handle the large datasets involved in this research, and he brought firsthand knowledge of the latest molecular technologies to UAMS.