Grant brings new professors and technology to campus to further cancer research

Janelle Polcyn

Through funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two established investigators and the latest in structure microscope technology are being brought to UT.

In January, Thomas Yankeelov, a professor of cancer research at Vanderbilt University, and Daniel Leahy, a biophysics professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, were brought to UT to teach classes, continue their research and contribute their experience in cancer research to three colleges within the University. 

Yankeelov is working with the Dell Medical School and the Cockrell School of Engineering, and Leahy is working with the College of Natural Sciences.

“The outstanding colleagues and resources available at UT will allow my lab to pursue new and exciting avenues of research,” Leahy said. “We research the molecular mechanisms by which specific growth factors trigger cells to grow and divide. Understanding how these molecules work in normal and disease states is both extremely interesting and likely to guide design of anticancer therapies.” 

In conjunction with the recruitment of Leahy, the College of Natural Sciences purchased a cyro-electron microscope, a tool that allows scientists to look at protein structures. The tool will compliment and expand the University’s research, including Leahy’s, Dean Appling, aassociate dean for research and facilities of the College of Natural Sciences, said.

“[This new microscope] allows visualization of molecules in various activity states,” Leahy said. “We look at the structures of receptors for [multiple] factors to learn what structural changes … are linked to cell growth and division.” 

Leahy’s research will focus on lab work with cells using the new microscope, while Yankeelov will be working with the patient population in the clinical settings of hospitals in the Austin area.

“The past decade has witnessed an enormous increase in our knowledge of cancer on multiple scales, yet the outcome for many cancers has not improved,” Yankeelov said. “The overall goal of our research program is to develop tumor forecasting methods by integrating advanced imaging tech with other patient-specific data, to build predictive multi-scale biophysical models of tumor growth to optimize therapy on a patient-specific basis.”

Yankeelov has already started collaborating with research institutes on campus and community healthcare centers around the city. 

“It is important to note … the [Dell Medical School] will provide us with the opportunity to take our methods to a large patient population, and the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences will allow for a dramatic expansion of our efforts at computational model of tumor growth and treatment response,” Yankeelov said.