Roberto Pili, MD, speaks at podium.

Roberto Pili, MD, speaks during UB’s Cancer Research Consortium Symposium at UB’s Clinical and Translational Research Center.

Symposium Highlights UB’s Cancer Research Efforts

By Dirk Hoffman

Published October 5, 2023

The multitude of cancer research studies being conducted at the University at Buffalo was on full display at the UB Cancer Research Consortium Symposium.

“The consortium aim is to foster collaboration that can be translated into successful grant applications. ”
Associate dean for cancer research and integrative oncology

The daylong symposium at UB’s Clinical and Translational Research Center (CTRC) featured more than a dozen research talks and two poster sessions.

It was organized by Roberto Pili, MD, an internationally renowned cancer and nutrition expert who is associate dean for cancer research and integrative oncology at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

He is a professor and chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology in the Department of Medicine.

Focus on Changing Health of WNY Community

In her opening remarks, Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School, noted “the UB Cancer Research Consortium brings together faculty from across the Jacobs School and from across the university, and it is focused on diagnosing, preventing and treating cancer. And most importantly, we want to change the health of our community in Western New York.”

Brashear noted that treatment of cancer is complex and preventing it is even more complex.

“All of us in the community have been touched by cancer in some way. My own mother died of breast cancer 21 years ago, and we have several women across both sides of our families who have been affected by cancer,” she said. “This is deeply important to me and also deeply important are the clinical trials that Dr. Pili runs.”

“We all need better ways to diagnose, confine, treat and prevent cancer, and we can only do that in a team approach, which is why we are all here today at UB,” Brashear added. “We want this symposium to be the beginning of innovation and hope it will be a first step in finding cures, treatment and prevention for our patients and all of Western New York.”

UB Has More Than 100 Active Cancer Awards

Pili is vice president of oncology services for the Great Lakes Cancer Care Collaborative, a consortium of eight organizations including UBMD Physicians’ Group, Erie County Medical Center and Kaleida Health. He is responsible for clinical quality, the clinical trials program and program accreditation, as well as assisting with the strategic direction and management of the program.

After serving nine years on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University, he joined Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center as professor of oncology and leader of its genitourinary program before moving to Indiana University. He was recruited to UB in 2020.

“When I returned to Buffalo, I was very impressed with the depth and breadth of cancer research at the University at Buffalo,” he said.

Pili noted the three major areas of expert interest at UB in cancer research:

  • epidemiology, prevention and early detection
  • drug discovery and development
  • drug toxicities and therapeutics interventions

He gave a snapshot of 2023 funding for cancer research at UB, noting it totaled $12.7 million, with $9.3 million in direct funding, and more importantly, $5.4 million in direct funding from the National Cancer Institute. UB currently has more than 100 active cancer awards, 18 R01 grants (nine new) and four R21s, with 39 investigators in 20 different departments in six schools.

Fostering Collaboration to Further Research

The UB Cancer Research Consortium includes eight UB schools:

“The consortium aim is to foster collaboration that can be translated into successful grant applications,” Pili said.

He pointed out the consortium’s mission priorities are to:

  • serve our diverse and socioeconomically disadvantaged community
  • promote cancer health equity, access to cancer care and cutting-edge clinical trial testing
  • study the genomic, epigenomic, environmental and behavioral factors contributing to cancer in WNY

“We want to build a strategic partnership with the SUNY system for coordination and access to biorepositories for basic science and translational research and for a shared clinical trial portfolio,” Pili said.

“We also have increasing research collaborations with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Care and would like to form a clinical trials consortium with Roswell Park.”

Among the consortium’s strategic plans is to “assess cancer burden and disparities in Western New York and inform cancer research at UB,” Pili said.

It also aims to train and retain future generations of cancer researchers in basic, translational, clinical and populations sciences research.

Pili, who specializes in genitourinary cancer and nutritional treatment of cancer patients, holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions and is director of the Sciences, Nutrition and Cancer Center.

He said another aim of the consortium is “to develop new effective targeted and personalized therapies and their integration with dietary and lifestyles changes.”

Cellular Therapy Advances Discussed in Talk

The keynote speaker at the symposium was Renier Brentjens, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at the Jacobs School and deputy director and chair of the Department of Medicine at Roswell Park.

One of the foremost experts on CAR-T cell therapy, his talk about advances in cellular therapy was titled “CARs and Armored CARs: Moving Cellular Therapy Forward.”

The symposium was conducted Sept. 28 inside the Murphy’s Family Conference Rooms on the fifth floor of the CTRC.

In his remarks, Timothy F. Murphy, MD, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research and director of UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, offered a few details about the CTRC.

“It opened in 2012 and has 35 laboratories, with principal investigators who are all focused on translational and clinical research,” he said.

“The best translational research is done when people from different disciplines get together and talk to each other — people who do not normally talk to each other,” Murphy added.

“If you look at today’s agenda, the presenters are from 20 different departments and five different UB schools, plus Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. This is a model for how you do translational research. These kinds of events are so important, the posters sessions, the talks and the exchange of ideas.”

Three research poster winners.

The symposium’s research poster winners, from left: Illaria Delle Fontaine (3rd place); Surendra Gulla, PhD (1st place); and Sabrina Orsi (2nd place).

Outstanding Research Studies Recognized

There were three winners in the symposium’s research poster competition.

Surendra Gulla, PhD, a postdoctoral associate in the Division of Hematology/Oncology in the Department of Medicine, won first place for his poster titled “Translational Modification of the Glucocorticoid Receptor in Treatment-Resistant Prostate Cancers.”

Sabrina Orsi, a trainee in the doctoral program in pharmacology, won second place for her poster titled “Therapeutic Targeting of P2X4 Receptor and Mitochondrial Metabolism in Renal Cell Carcinoma.”

Illaria Delle Fontaine, a master’s student supported by the Research Foundation for SUNY, won third place for her poster titled “A Mechanistic Study of the TFE3-Splicing Machinery Gene Fusions Reveals a New Druggable Target for Translocation Renal Cell Carcinoma.”