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Florida Institutions Awarded $16 Million for Cancer Research

Walter O’Dell looks at a CT scan of an adult lung and its blood vessels. Comparisons can be made between traditional X-ray radiation and proton therapy to determine whether protons reduced the amount of lung damage. Photo courtesy of UF Health
Walter O’Dell looks at a CT scan of an adult lung and its blood vessels. Comparisons can be made between traditional X-ray radiation and proton therapy to determine whether protons reduced the amount of lung damage. Photo courtesy of UF Health

The Florida Department of Health awarded $16 million to organizations throughout the state to support cancer and tobacco-related disease research efforts.

The University of Florida is one of them.

It received $4,542,030 for six research projects.

The grants are funded by the Bankhead-Coley Cancer Research Program and the James and Esther King Biomedical Research Program.

Mara Gambineri, the communications director for the Florida Department of Health, said these grants are intended to help researchers prevent, treat and cure cancer.

Funding, which will be distributed by March 15, was awarded to eight universities and cancer research centers for 17 research projects, according to the department.

“Thanks to the leadership of the legislature and the governor, we’ve had incredible amounts of funding go into cancer research in Florida in the last three or so years,” Gambineri said.

The department received about 160 research proposals, Gambineri said. Out of those, 17 received funding. The state surgeon general makes the final decision on which projects will receive funding, she said.

The grants intend to accomplish a few major goals, said Dr. Daniel Armstrong, chair of the biomedical research advisory council.

One is to conduct research that will lead to a reduction in the deaths of primary cancers, such as lung, colon, prostate, breast and melanoma. Another is to decrease deaths related to health disparity, minority populations and under-served groups living in environmentally difficult areas. The grants also intend to promote collaboration between researchers and institutions.

Cancer is the leading cause of death in Florida, he said. Florida has the second highest number of cancer cases in the U.S.

“The legislature’s decision to support cancer research really puts us into a position where we are able to drive the argument, for the residents of Florida, that the cancers that we targeted as our primary concerns are the ones that affect most Floridians, “Armstrong said.

One of UF's six projects, led by Walter O’Dell, an assistant professor in UF’s department of radiation oncology, will examine the effects of radiation to the lungs in breast cancer patients. The goal is to quantify the amount of damage patients have and how it progresses over time, O’Dell said.

This project will measure how much proton therapy reduces radiation damage in comparison to traditional X-ray radiation. Proton therapy, a form of radiation using protons, can better control where the radiation goes and minimize damage to healthy tissues, he said.

The project will also look at proteins in the bloodstream to see if certain patients are more susceptible to experiencing long-term damage from radiation treatment, he said.

“There’s a lot of good research going unfunded,” O’Dell said. “The fact that there are funding opportunities in the state is terrific.”

The H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute was awarded about $4.8 million for four research projects.

David Drobes, associate director of the tobacco research and intervention program at the center,  said one of the funded projects will focus on how to reduce the desire smokers have for nicotine.

“We need to understand more about why people smoke and have a greater variety of tools to help them quit,” he said.

The Mayo Clinic Florida was awarded about $965,000 for one project, led by E. Aubrey Thompson, PhD.

The project will look at genes from tumors to determine why certain patients, with HER2-positive breast cancer, are cured and others aren’t, Thompson said. About 10 to 15 percent of breast cancer patients have high levels of HER2, a protein that grows rapidly and spreads to other areas of the body.

About 75 to 80 percent of patients with HER2-positive breast cancer are cured. Thompson said the goal is to find out why, so 100 percent can be cured.

“We do a great job of treating cancer patients, but we don’t do a good enough job,” Thompson said. “To do the best possible job we have to be able to identify the women who won’t benefit from the standard therapies.”

Daniel Armstrong said each of these projects has the potential to be a breakthrough.

“Some of these projects may wind up being the home run that results in the cure for a particular type of cancer,” he said.

Dakota is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing