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The National Cancer Institute has awarded the Lung Cancer Metabolism Working Group at Moffitt Cancer Center with a research program project grant that will provide more than $10.2 million. The multifaceted grant will focus on investigating lung cancer metabolism in five different research areas.

Dr. Elsa Flores

Dr. Elsa Flores, chair, Department of Molecular Oncology

I recently sat down with Dr. Elsa Flores, chair of the Department of Molecular Oncology, to discuss this research project that will be a game changer for the treatment of lung cancer.

Hwu: Tell us about the $10.2 million grant you got from the NCI.

Flores: I’m really excited to tell you about it. The main goal is to bring together various subject matter experts and unify our research around this common theme of identifying metabolic pathways to develop targeted therapy for lung cancer treatment. Each project primarily focuses on genes alternated in lung cancer that are difficult to target therapeutically.

Hwu: Tell me about these genes. Some of them are termed druggable, some of them are undruggable. Tell me, how are you making the undruggable targets more druggable?

Flores: There are certain targets that are difficult to therapeutically reach. And they’re usually characterized or dubbed as undruggable. The idea behind our project is to target metabolism, to really understand the pathways that are specific to lung cancer cells. And then to develop compounds that specifically target these cells that have really been rewired to metabolically thrive.

Hwu: What do you think the ultimate druggable situation will be for lung cancer treatment with this project so that you can increase that specificity?

Flores: Although it seems that some cancer cells have been known to hijack metabolic pathways in a way that some normal proliferating cells do not, we’re trying to tackle this by building models and really understanding pathways that are specifically used by lung cancer cells versus cells that are healthy and proliferating in other organs.

Hwu: Do you think that you will then be able to find some things that can help other cancers besides lung cancer from this project?

Flores: Absolutely. We’ve seen this in a lot of what we do in the lab. It’s all about understanding the function of the family members in basic epithelial cells. We have another project focused on stem cells in the lung and really trying to understand how these different genes regulate different cell types that are thought to be the cell of origin of lung cancer. A lot of these cells have overlapping functions in other epithelial cell types, which is in the breast and in the skin. We do see a lot of overlapping mechanisms. I think what we will find here in this specific grant-funded project can be tested and applied to many other cancers.

Hwu: Tell us about the use of machine learning in some of your cancer research.

Flores: One of the things that we’re really trying to build here at Moffitt is better pre-clinical models that mimic human cancer. We’re doing this using artificial intelligence, and I’m really excited about it because one of the limitations of studying mouse models is that you rely on pathologists to tell you what looks like what we see in human cancer. We’re develop a machine learning algorithm to grade our mouse tumors. And, in fact, it’s so accurate that we cannot even tell whether it’s mouse or human.