October 01, 2013

Researcher earns grant for kidney cancer study

A research scientist at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield has been awarded a three-year federal grant from the National Cancer Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, to study natural killer cells in kidney cancer. The total budget for the grant is $375,180.

Andrew Wilber, Ph.D., assistant professor of medical microbiology, immunology and cell biology at SIU, is the principal investigator for the project.

According to the American Cancer Society, kidney cancer makes up 3 percent of all cancers.  Because this disease is often not detected until advanced stage, the best opportunity for long-term survival is complete or partial removal of a kidney. Patients also may undergo cytokine immunotherapy with proteins designed to improve immune cell function. Unfortunately, this therapy has a low success rate (15 percent) indicating that tumors may prevent immune cell function.

One particular type of immune cell, natural killer cells, normally destroys infected or transformed cells. The cancer alters these natural killer cells causing them to promote the tumor, rather than inhibit it. This study will look at two key factors produced by kidney tumors that may be responsible for this effect. Future efforts will be designed to identify a way to reverse this effect. Results of this study may lead to future treatments for kidney cancer that could extend the life of individuals with the disease.

These efforts were initially supported by funding from the Simmons Cancer Institute’s Denim and Diamonds. This is the first NIH grant awarded for Wilber’s research on tumor immunity. His lab also studies severe hemoglobin disorders, Beta-thalassemia and sickle-cell disease, which have been funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.

Wilber joined the faculty at SIU in 2008. He was a postdoctoral fellow in the experimental hematology department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis (2007). Wilber completed his doctoral degree in the molecular, cellular, developmental biology and genetics department at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis (2006). He earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry at Millikin University in Decatur (1996).