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The CTRC A-Team

The CTRC A-Team
In the ongoing battle against a deadly disease, the Cancer Therapy & Research Center has assembled the ultimate team of professionals.

September 2010

by Will Sansom

In November 2007 Texas voters passed Proposition 15, the constitutional amendment that established the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). The amendment authorizes the issuance of $3 billion in bonds to support the institute, which exists to enhance cancer research, prevention and control programs across Texas.

Thanks to this historic vote, biochemist Dmitri Ivanov, Ph.D., is the inaugural CPRIT Scholar in Cancer Research at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio.

Ask Dr. Ivanov and he will tell you: The excitement of scientific discovery is in his veins.

He grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, the son of two material scientists. His father, Dr. Nikolay Ivanov, is a plastics expert and his mother, Dr. Raisa Grishmanovskaya, is an expert in stainless steel. "In general, the reason I came into science is that I came from a family of scientists," the younger Ivanov said.

His interest in cancer is personal, given that his father was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2005 when Dr. Dmitri Ivanov was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School. "That stimulated an interest in using my expertise to fight cancer," he said.

His research examines how cells repair damage to their genetic instructions, called DNA. Cells respond to genetic insults wreaked by environmental factors, ultraviolet radiation in sunlight, and oxidative stress generated by the cells’ own energy consumption. Efficient DNA repair should be a good thing, but tumor cells take advantage of it for nefarious purposes, namely to grow. "What intrigues us is there are a lot of very intimate connections between DNA repair pathways and signaling pathways that are deregulated in cancer," Dr. Ivanov said.

Thanks to the CPRIT Scholar grant, which is $2 million over four years, Dr. Ivanov’s research program in San Antonio is getting a strong start. At Harvard he helped identify a potential target for inhibition of one of the key DNA repair pathways, called nucleotide excision repair. At the Health Science Center he wants to expand into different DNA repair pathways. "In particular we will study the Fanconi anemia pathway," he said. "Fanconi anemia is a rare genetic disorder. People with Fanconi anemia have this DNA repair pathway impaired, and one of the hallmarks of the disorder is high incidence of cancer. We will investigate whether this pathway could be targeted for anti-cancer therapy."

Because cancers can use DNA repair to survive, lowering the amount of repair activity can curb tumor growth while still enabling healthy cells to enact repairs.

Dr. Ivanov used a battlefield analogy: "In combat you don’t want to explode a big bomb that kills your enemy but kills your own troops, too. You want your bomb to go to a specific location or not go to a specific location. Similarly, we would like to be more discriminate in the way we block protein function. We don’t want the bomb to go where our own troops, aka the healthy cells, are."

Dr. Ivanov has an ambitious research agenda and is willing to take risks on new ideas. "The CPRIT program really gives us the luxury to be innovative and try new things," he said. "When you are a young scientist, you are more likely to take the unexpected route. CPRIT’s support is an invaluable resource for scientists at the early stages of their careers."

Bruce J. Nicholson, Ph.D., professor and chairman of biochemistry in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, spoke about the team of scientists in San Antonio working on discoveries that have potential to be carried into clinical trials.

"Dr. Ivanov’s arrival is a key component of our plan to build a team of biochemists who will provide essential insights into the structure of multi-molecular complexes essential to the control of many cell processes. The knowledge of these structures is being used in the development of anti-cancer agents that can be tested in Phase I clinical trials [first-time use in humans] at the Cancer Therapy& Research Center at the UT Health Science Center.

"Coordinated with expanding efforts in medicinal chemistry and high-throughput screening in collaboration with The University of Texas at San Antonio and Southwest Research Institute, drug discovery is undergoing a rebirth in San Antonio that promises exciting prospects for the near future."

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Updated 7/30/14