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Stephenson Cancer Center gets grant to study why tumors come back

 Dr. Robert Mannel, director of Stephenson Cancer Center [The Oklahoman archives]
Dr. Robert Mannel, director of Stephenson Cancer Center [The Oklahoman archives]

Oklahoma City — Stephenson Cancer Center has received more than $10 million to study why some cancers figure out a way to survive everything modern medicine can throw at them.

It's still not clear why some cancers come roaring back after what looked like successful treatment, while others never threaten the patient again. The goal of the grant is to take laboratory research into more aggressive cancers, and to figure out how to make better treatments.

“Unfortunately, about 35 percent of patients who get a diagnosis of cancer will ultimately die, and they die because their tumors develop resistance to the therapies,” said Dr. Robert Mannel, director of Stephenson Cancer Center.

The $10.7 million federal grant will fund four junior researchers, who will work under more-experienced mentors, for five years. It also will pay for new imaging and tissue-processing equipment. Ideally, the young researchers will get other grants over the next few years, so Stephenson can then transfer this funding to others whose projects are just getting started, Mannel said.

The grant funds “help build a foundation,” he said. “Even when this grant's finished, the people that it's trained are still here.”

The first group of researchers will focus on cancers in the gastrointestinal tract; glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that killed Arizona Sen. John McCain; and endometrial cancer, which develops in the lining of the uterus.

Cancer develops resistance in several ways, Mannel said. Sometimes, cancer cells will have a random mutation that allows them to survive a chemotherapy drug, so that even though the tumor shrinks when susceptible cells die, the mutated cells can rapidly multiply and the tumor grows back. Other times, cancer tricks the immune system, so it can't see and destroy the tumor, he said.

Because cancer has so many tricks, it's probably going to take multiple therapies to help patients whose tumors have returned, Mannel said. If predicting improves, doctors could target all the ways a tumor is likely to protect itself at the same time, rather than trying one treatment and moving on to another when that stops working, he said.

“You might think of it as blocking all the escape routes to a room,” he said.

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›