Five Researchers Awarded Pilot Project Funding

Every year, Huntsman Cancer Institute receives funding from the American Cancer Society to support the promising research of junior faculty. This year, Natasha Pavlova, PhDBenjamin Sanchez Terrones, PhDYang Liu, PhDAmi B. Patel, MD and Djin L. Tay, PhD, RN received $30,000 from Institutional Research Grants. Principal investigator Don Ayer, PhD, says this money will be used to kickstart their research projects.

Learn more about the award recipients and their research.

Natasha Pavlova, PhD, Assistant professor of oncological sciences, researcher at Huntsman Cancer Institute

Pavlova’s work focuses on the metabolism of the cell related to the growth of solid tumors. “The metabolism process can provide nutrients to cancer cells. This nutrition helps cancer cells create more of themselves, causing cancer to grow and spread,” says Pavlova. “Understanding this mechanism will help us design new treatments that restrict this process.” This grant will not only fund her research but build a foundation for larger research grants. “Receiving this grant was a vote of confidence in my research plan,” says Pavlova. “I am honored to receive this grant, and the institutional support that comes with it.”

Benjamin Sanchez Terrones, PhD, Assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, member of the experimental therapeutics program at Huntsman Cancer Institute

Sanchez Terrones, a trained electrical engineer, and a former instructor at Harvard Medical School, has used his experience to guide his research. “My background has given me the opportunity to witness, first-hand, how my skills can be used to help people,” says Sanchez Terrones. Through his research, he has developed a device that can be used to detect, diagnose, stage, treat, and monitor skin cancer. Utah has the highest rate of melanoma in the nation. It is also one of the most common cancers in the Area we Serve, which includes Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, and Montana. With the support of this grant, Sanchez Terrones hopes to improve the limited tools that physicians have to evaluate skin lesions.

Yang Liu, PhD, Assistant professor of biochemistry, researcher at Huntsman Cancer Institute

Liu’s interest in cancer research started when stage IV lung cancer took away the life of his 68-year-old grandmother. His grandfather is currently undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. “Losing a family member profoundly impacts your life,” says Liu. “Understanding cancer and developing effective cancer therapies will undoubtedly contribute to a better and healthier world.” Liu is contributing to the development of effective cancer therapies by looking at the way cells detect and repair damaged DNA. When DNA is damaged and multiplies, cancer can develop and grow. Liu plans to use CRISPR technology, a gene-editing tool that can cut and alter DNA, to manipulate this process in hopes of finding new paths for precise and targeted treatments.

Ami B. Patel, MD, Division of hematology and hematologic malignancies at Huntsman Cancer Institute

Patel has been a part of Huntsman Cancer Institute since 2014. She is a physician-scientist who specializes in blood and bone marrow cancers. “My motivation comes from the patients in my clinic and in the hospital, who I see facing each day with grace, dignity, and humor,” says Patel. Her ACS project will focus on people who have developed both lymphoma and leukemia to see if they carry genetic differences in their blood stem cells. “I am hopeful that my research can lead to improved quality of life and survival for patients diagnosed with myeloid leukemias,” says Patel.

Djin L. Tay, PhD, RN, Assistant professor in the college of nursing, researcher at Huntsman Cancer Institute

Tay’s work focuses on the relationship between mental health and the discontinuation of cancer treatment in her research. “To our knowledge, this is the first causal model that looks at disparities, mental health comorbidity, and immune-related adverse event outcomes using a national dataset,” says Tay. Tay hopes that this first step will ultimately result in more equitable cancer care. “We live in a world where we have increased access to very large amounts of data. I am thankful to be a part of an academic community that is driven to use this information to improve outcomes for the populations we serve.”

Congratulations to these faculty on their awards.

Learn more about Huntsman Cancer Institute’s research.

About Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah 

Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah is the official cancer center of Utah and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the Mountain West. The campus includes a state-of-the-art cancer specialty hospital and two buildings dedicated to cancer research. Huntsman Cancer Institute provides patient care, cancer screening, and education at community clinics and affiliate hospitals throughout the Mountain West. It is consistently recognized among the best cancer hospitals in the country by U.S. News and World Report. The region’s first proton therapy center opened in 2021 and a major hospital expansion is underway. Huntsman Cancer Institute is committed to creating a diverse and inclusive environment for staff, students, patients, and communities. Advancing cancer research discoveries and treatments to meet the needs of patients who live far away from a major medical center is a unique focus. More genes for inherited cancers have been discovered at Huntsman Cancer Institute than at any other cancer center, including genes responsible for breast, ovarian, colon, head and neck cancers, and melanoma. Huntsman Cancer Institute was founded by Jon M. and Karen Huntsman.

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