I-CHER Center 2023 Pilot Grant Awardees

The Illinois Cancer Health Equity Research (I-CHER) Center, which sits within the University of Illinois Cancer Center, has announced its latest pilot grant awardees.

The 2023 recipients are Cancer Center member Saria Lofton, PhD, RN, an Assistant Professor in the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) College of Nursing, and Maria Jose Godoy Calderon, PhD, a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Chicago in the lab of Cancer Center Deputy Director VK Gadi, MD, PhD.

Lofton and Calderon were awarded $30,000 each for their research projects. Lofton’s project is Developing Food is Medicine for Breast Cancer Survivors: A Lifestyle Modification for Black Breast Cancer Survivors with Cardiovascular Risk and Calderon’s project is Surface-engineered NK/Trastuzumab Cells as a Targeted Immunotherapy for HER2-low Breast Cancer.

The I-CHER Center offers pilot funding for two one-year projects per year for four years for underrepresented minority investigators with research projects that provide equitable solutions to tackle social and structural determinants of cancer health. The I-CHER Center is made possible with funding from the American Cancer Society (ACS) and support from the Cancer Center.

The work by Lofton is a fresh strategy to incorporate dietary modifications for food-insecure Black breast cancer survivors who are also affected by obesity and hypertension.

Lofton explains the study will evaluate a “food is medicine” intervention that incorporates nutritional and hypertension-related education, virtual cooking demonstrations, and home food delivery. Since the program is rooted in a “food is medicine” initiative that was introduced on the South side in 2021, a community-based approach will be utilized to tailor and evaluate this intervention.

For Calderon, the project is about evaluating a novel immunotherapy for HER2-low breast cancer based on surface-engineered NK cells linked to trastuzumab (SE-NK/Tz cells). The project aims to address the health disparity challenge around cell-based cancer immunotherapies for breast cancer. Considering its low cost, easy and fast method of preparation, this investigational therapy could be widely administered to HER2-low breast cancer patients unable to access other conventional cell-based therapies.

“For this, we will develop a mouse breast cancer cell line expressing low levels of human HER2, which will serve as targets for cytotoxicity studies to evaluate the in vitro effect of SE-NK/Tz cells. The results obtained from this investigation will lay the foundations for future preclinical work and subsequently clinical trials that lead to the establishment of a new, effective, and accessible immunotherapy for HER2-low breast cancer,” according to Calderon.

The Cancer Center on the UIC campus was 1 of 4 four Minority Serving Institutions that shared in more than $16 million in grants awarded by the ACS, beginning in January 2022, to establish Cancer Health Equity Research (CHER) Centers. The others were the University of Arizona, Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, and Howard University in Washington, D.C. Each institution received a four-year grant of $4.08 million.

The inaugural 2022 pilot grant awardees were Cancer Center member Hunter Holt, MD, part of the Cancer Center’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program and a UI Health family medicine physician, for the project Assessment of Guideline Concordant Cervical Cancer Screening in Chicago Using Electronic Health Record Data from a Large Research Network (CAPriCORN) and Shaveta Khosla, PhD, MPH, a Senior Research Specialist in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Chicago, for the project Prevention and Screening of Cancer in the Emergency Department Patient Population (PaCE).

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