SPORE Alliance Aims to Improve Prevention, Care of Deadly GI Cancers

Early into her research career at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Tianyan Gao, PhD, says mentorship was vital to her success. Now, as a professor and co-principal investigator of a team supported by the college’s Alliance Research Initiative, she is able to mentor the next generation of researchers who are working to find solutions for one of Kentucky’s major health issues.

Dr. Gao, professor in the department of molecular and cellular biochemistry, joins Mark Evers, MD, director of the UK Markey Cancer Center and professor in the department of surgery, to lead the Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in GI Cancers Alliance.

Through SPORE, researchers from across the University are working to improve the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a deadly group of diseases within the Commonwealth: gastrointestinal (GI) cancers. In fact, Kentucky leads the nation in colorectal cancer diagnoses and possesses a high rate of colorectal cancer mortality compared to other U.S. states. Other GI cancers such as pancreatic cancer are also common in the region.

Though the Alliance Research Initiative launched in 2020, ideas from SPORE have long been components of Drs. Evers’s and Gao’s research. However, the Alliance model has helped accelerate the pace of projects, bring in more investigators, and build upon projects that Drs. Evers, Gao, and other UK researchers have started in a more unified approach.

“We feel like the Alliance Research Initiative is a really great mechanism to help people work together,” Dr. Gao said. “It has allowed us to bring in more people who have experience with other types of cancer or have a drug development which maybe can be applied to GI cancer as well.”

The SPORE team has since received five R01 grants from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), including one funding Drs. Evers and Gao to study altered lipid metabolism as a novel target for colon cancer treatment. Dr. Gao also recently renewed an NCI R01 ​to research the role of the protein PHLPP in colon cancer, and Dr. Evers received two R01 grants from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

While Drs. Gao and Evers focus on colorectal cancer, there are also research groups within SPORE finding solutions for other related issues. Qing-Bai She, PhD, professor in the department of pharmacology and nutritional sciences, received an R21 grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to research translational control in Cr(VI) carcinogenesis. Mark Dignan, PhD, MPH, professor in the department of internal medicine, received an NCI UH3 to help accelerate colorectal cancer screening in Appalachia.

The SPORE Alliance has developed a sound formula to ensure enhanced, well-rounded mentorship through the process, with sets of four experienced faculty members providing guidance to each of three junior faculty members on the team. Examples of success include an R01 grant submitted by Kate Zaytseva, PhD, assistant professor in the department of toxicology and cancer biology, to study lipid metabolism in colorectal cancer. Aman Chauhan, MD, assistant professor in the department of internal medicine, has developed two clinical trials set to begin in the coming months.

As a whole, the SPORE team has produced 18 publications, and 10 clinical trials have either launched or are in the works. Projects include a mix of basic science and clinical work, which is advantageous in bringing groundbreaking discoveries from the bench to the bedside.

“Each project is emphasizing clinical translation, so you have clinicians working with basic researchers and population scientists,” Dr. Evers said. “Junior faculty really see the value and the benefit of working in a more collaborative, multidisciplinary team.”

To learn more about SPORE and other Alliance teams, visit www.med.uky.edu/alliance.

SPORE Alliance Team Members

  • Lowell Anthony, MD, Division Chief – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Terrence A. Barrett, MD, Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Avinash S. Bhakta, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Surgery
  • Therese Bocklage, MD, Professor – Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
  • Michael J. Cavnar, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Surgery
  • Aman Chauhan, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Mark Dignan, PhD, MPH, Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Mark Evers, MD, Director, Markey Cancer Center – Department of Surgery
  • Teresa Fan, PhD, Professor – Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology
  • Tianyan Gao, PhD, Associate Professor – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Roberto Gedaly, MD, Professor – Department of Surgery
  • Richard Higashi, PhD, Professor – Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology
  • Joseph Kim, MD, Professor – Department of Surgery
  • Eun Lee, MD, Professor – Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
  • Chunming Liu, PhD, Professor – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Xiaoqi Liu, PhD, Professor – Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology
  • Prakash K. Pandalai, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Surgery
  • Piotr Rychahou, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Surgery
  • Qing-Bai She, PhD, Professor  – Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences
  • Daret St. Clair, PhD, Professor – Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology
  • Chi Wang, PhD, Assistant Professor – College of Public Health
  • Qingding Wang, MD, Associate Professor – Department of Surgery
  • David Watt, PhD, Professor – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Qiou Wei, PhD, Associate Professor – Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology
  • Sainan Wei, MD, PhD, Professor – Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
  • Heidi Weiss, PhD, Professor – Department of Surgery
  • Ren Xu, PhD, Professor – Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences
  • Kate Zaytseva, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology
  • Shulin Zhang, MD, PhD, Professor – Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine