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U-M researchers earn $6.9M NIH 'transformative' grant

Study will look at retrovirus linked to cancer, AIDS

added 9/25/09

Ann Arbor - Researchers at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center were awarded a grant worth $6.9 million over five years as part of a National Institutes of Health program to encourage investigators to explore bold ideas that have the potential to catapult fields forward and speed the translation of research into improved health.

U-M researchers earn $6.9M NIH 'transformative' grant

David Markovitz, M.D.

The grant, one of 42 awarded across the country, will fund research into endogenous retroviruses, part of the so-called "junk DNA" that has been believed to be a dead or useless part of the human genome. The researchers will use new technologies to examine whether one retrovirus, HERV-K, actually does still replicate and plays a role in some cancers.

The grant is under the NIH Director's Transformative R01 (T-R01) Awards, part of the NIH Common Fund's Roadmap for Medical Research. This is the first year for the T-R01 awards, but the overall $348 million in funding also includes two other award programs that were established in 2006.

"This award is a testament to the persistent efforts of my collaborators at the University of Michigan. We have some extremely talented individuals with diverse scientific backgrounds here, which makes it possible to look at the issue of whether endogenous retroviruses can still replicate in modern humans. If we are able to demonstrate that this is indeed the case, it could have quite a big impact on medicine," says principal investigator David Markovitz, M.D., professor of internal medicine at the U-M Medical School.

Markovitz's collaborators are Mark Kaplan, M.D.; Rafael Contreras-Galindo, Ph.D.; Scott Gitlin, M.D.; Gilbert Omenn, M.D., Ph.D.; Akira Ono, Ph.D.; and Hashim Al-Hashimi, Ph.D.

Research has shown that lymphoma and breast cancer patients have particularly high levels of HERV-K in their blood. When these patients are effectively treated for their cancer, the HERV-K levels decrease. Markovitz and his team will work to show that HERV-K is not a dead retrovirus but is still capable of replication in the human body under certain circumstances. If this proves to be true, it might be necessary to screen donated blood for HERV-K. The researchers also suspect HERV-K could be used as a biomarker for cancer as well as a potential treatment target.

"Although all Common Fund programs encourage new approaches to tough research problems, the appeal of the Pioneer, New Innovator, and now the T-R01 programs is that investigators are encouraged to define the challenges to be addressed and to think out of the box while being given substantial resources to test their ideas," said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.


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Written by Nicole Fawcett


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Please Note: The articles listed in the Cancer Center's News Archive are here for historical purposes. The information and links may no longer be up-to-date.