Virginia Tech has developed a university-wide cancer research strategy to create and expand synergies among more than 30 existing research teams at work finding new ways to prevent, quickly diagnose, and treat cancers, officials announced today.

The effort will increase cooperation and connections among Virginia Tech’s growing cancer research community, help recruit additional cancer researchers, provide access to state-of-the-art shared research resources, foster relationships with institutions and agencies recognized as world leaders in cancer treatment and research, and enhance the already substantial cancer research funding at the university.

“Virginia Tech has dozens of dedicated, smart people working in research labs developing innovations for patients and families in their struggles with this disease, but we usually talk about their work on an individual level,” said Michael Friedlander, vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech. “By looking at the totality of Virginia Tech’s efforts, the optics reveal a broad, diverse landscape of faculty members and expertise across colleges, centers, and institutes being applied to solve the health issues and social problems caused by cancer.”

Virginia Tech has 22 active cancer research awards from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with an annual value of $4.3 million.

More than 30 research teams are distributed across its Blacksburg-Roanoke campus with affiliations that include the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC,  the College of Science, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Engineering, the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and the Virginia Tech Center for Drug Discovery.

In addition, synergies continue to flourish with Carilion Clinic, Virginia Tech’s clinical partner.

“With Carilion’s expansive plans for growth to improve health care in the region, along with the recent announcement regarding a new Carilion children’s facility for specialty services, Virginia Tech expects additional opportunities for collaborations and partnerships in children’s health will increase, including cancer research and care,” Friedlander said.

Virginia Tech will now create a new strategic focus on cancer in children while it continues to develop cross-cutting research throughout the university and strategic relationships with federal agencies, private industry, and community partners — all aimed at the development of successful diagnostics and treatments for cancer.

Friedlander cited a productive relationship with Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s premier children’s hospitals that is consistently ranked in the nation’s top six. Its neonatology program is ranked No. 1 in the country.  

“Virginia Tech and Children’s National have a long history of collaboration, including joint NIH research grants, shared intellectual property, and shared scientific advisory efforts,” said Friedlander, who is also the executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “We fully expect to become more engaged in the rich innovation ecosystem in the Washington, D.C., area as we move forward.”

The university plans to recruit several new research teams to work on pediatric brain cancer research.

The new cancer research effort will be coordinated through Virginia Tech’s Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology, which is under the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost.

“With a growing emphasis on biomedical research to improve the lives of humans and animals, stretching from the VTC health sciences and technology campus in the Roanoke Innovation Corridor to every corner of Virginia Tech, the time is perfect to bring our outstanding faculty and programs together in a more integrated and cohesive way,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke. “This initiative will advance the transdisciplinary strengths of Virginia Tech’s engineering, computational, life sciences, physical sciences, and behavioral and social sciences to address one of the nation’s leading causes of mortality – cancer.”

In 2018, an estimated 1.7 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States and more than 600,000 people were expected to die from the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The cancer research initiative is in keeping with the university’s Beyond Boundaries vision to solve global-scale societal problems and expand Virginia Tech’s footprint in the D.C. area, creating an approach to employ transdisciplinary excellence to take on complex challenges at the center of discovery.

Cancer research at Virginia Tech

Cancer research that is funded by the National Cancer Institute of NIH at Virginia Tech is carried out by faculty, students, and staff in multiple departments, colleges, and institutes, including the departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, and Chemical Engineering in the College of Engineering; the Department of Small Animal Clinical Science in the College of Veterinary Medicine; the Department of Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine; and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. 

Additional teams with other sources of funding for their cancer research are in the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of Chemistry in the College of Science; the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine; the Fralin Life Sciences Institute; and the Virginia Tech Center for Drug Discovery.

Approaches

Faculty members target the development of novel interventions and therapeutics for brain, breast, colon, and lung cancers, although some of the research programs address broader aspects of cancer such as next generation microchips for detection of epigenetic modifications, vaccines, and immune system engagement as well as interventions to modify environmental factors and behaviors that increase patients risks for developing or relapsing cancer.  

Other approaches across the university include the development of technologies for targeted delivery of cancer therapeutics, development of precision patient specific therapies based on the individual’s tumor’s properties, the role of diet, obesity, and daily circadian sleep/wake cycles in cancer development. In addition, Virginia Tech has multiple graduate training programs focused on cancer, providing the next generation of cancer biomedical researchers.  

Strengths

  • NCI-funded research into a deadly form of primary brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme is underway. This type of brain cancer has a less than 5 percent five-year survival rate and virtually no effective and reliable treatment. It continues to take lives of young, middle-aged, and older adults. Multiple Virginia Tech teams have identified potential new therapeutic targets, combined pharmacological therapies, and therapeutic delivery systems to treat this cancer.  
  • A Comparative Oncology Research Center (CORC) will open in June 2020 in the new biomedical research building of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke. The facility will bring together veterinary surgical, medical, and radiation oncologists to provide access to clinical trials to provide leading-edge treatment for dogs with cancers, while informing research in humans.
  • Children are a major segment of the population in need of the development of new cancer preventions, treatments, and cure. Children are not just little adults — their physiological functions, chemistry, and genetic/epigenetic programs have many differences from adults, requiring more targeted interventions and treatment strategies designed specifically for children. Virginia Tech is initiating a focused program on children’s brain cancer research.  
  • Virginia Tech is exploring a collaboration with Johnson and Johnson Innovations JLABS facility on the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus to create and accelerate the delivery of lifesaving, life-enhancing health and wellness solutions to patients around the world.
  • VTC School of Medicine faculty and Carilion Clinic physicians are recognized in pediatric oncology and for innovative therapeutics for pediatric cancers.