UF colorectal surgeon receives $1.5 million NIH grant to study colon cancer

Emina Huang, M.D.

Emina Huang, M.D., an associate professor of surgery in the College of Medicine, has received a $1.52 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund her research into the origins of colon cancer.

The five-year grant will allow Huang to investigate whether “there’s a way to prevent the progression from benign ulcerative colitis to cancer,” she said.

“We asked the question: Are tumor-initiating cells present in ulcerative colitis?” said Huang, who also is a joint associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology in the Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, and a member of the UF Shands Cancer Center. “We found the answer is ‘yes,’ and we’ve been able to identify those and work with them.”

Approximately 700,000 people have colitis in the United States, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. The National Cancer Institute estimates that cancer of the colon and rectum will claim the lives of about 50,000 people this year.

Huang’s research team for the project includes Edward W. Scott, Ph.D., a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at UF and director of the Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine; Myron Chang, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology and health policy research; Robert C. Fisher, Ph.D., a research scientist working in the department of surgery; and Elizabeth Butterworth, B.A., a biological scientist in the department.

NIH RO1 grants, the kind awarded to Huang, fund applications from individual investigators based on research that has the potential to improve global health and well-being. The application process is competitive and, generally, fewer than 25 percent of applications are funded.

“Prolonged inflammation due to colitis has been shown to contribute to the development of colon cancer and we are looking at the mechanisms involved in this process,” Butterworth said.

She also said the team will examine cells affected with ulcerative colitis “to elucidate whether interleukin-8 plays a role in the number or type of divisions present in our samples.”

Interleukin-8 is an immune system protein thought to contribute to cancer growth.

They also will generate and analyze cancer “stem” cell lines for proteins key to tumor development, and investigate how and why metastasis occurs. Cancer stem cells are those thought by some researchers to be responsible for the generation of new cancerous cells.

Fisher said the team will examine “fundamental stem cell properties, including clonality and self-renewal, along with metastatic potential” to determine the role these cells may play in cancer development. The research could eventually allow doctors “to predict patients who will progress to cancer from benign disease” and to find ways to stop the change from happening in the first place, said Huang.

Max Wicha, M.D., director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, said Huang’s research “has a lot of implications for not only just understanding where colon cancers come from, but for developing new strategies to prevent colon cancer.”

He noted current work to develop ways to block interleukin-8 that, along with Huang’s research into the protein’s role in colon cancer growth, could lead to therapies to prevent the disease.

Huang also is involved in a study of colorectal outcomes in surgery patients. She and Sanda Tan, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of surgery, have received a two-year $30,768 grant from UF’s Office of Continuing Medical Education Clinical Quality Awards Program.

This study will measure rates of a variety of complications in patients after colorectal surgery, and compare them against rates at other facilities nationwide. Huang and Tan also will research and propose changes to patient care practices, as deemed necessary. The final step will require monitoring changed practices, recording results and disseminating findings.