Feature Stories

Researchers making inroads in cancer fight

This year, 50,000 Georgians will be diagnosed with cancer and more than 16,000 will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

Almost 5,000 Georgians will die from lung cancer alone, 12,000 women will die from breast cancer and more than 1,000 people, mostly men, will die from pancreatic cancer.

Nationwide, more than 580,000 people will die from some form of cancer, more than 1,300 of them children.

At the University of Georgia, researchers are working to reduce those numbers by developing new strategies to diagnose, treat and possibly one day cure cancer, a complex set of diseases characterized by uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. Over the past decade, UGA scientists have received more than $114 million in grant money to develop new detection methods and treatments, identify causes and explore possible cures.

In addition, scientists are raising awareness of the deadly illnesses, helping Georgians better understand the importance of cancer screenings and healthy lifestyles that have proven to help fight against some cancer cell development.

"Much of cancer research depends on talented teams of scientists," says Michael Pierce, who directs the UGA Cancer Center, established in 2004. "Since cancer is so complex and requires a wide spectrum of expertise to understand and apply advances to diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients, our cancer center members collaborate with both clinicians and research scientists. We look forward to increasing these collaborations in the future."

Here are some faculty members making a difference at UGA.



Connie Crawley, Senior Public Service Associate and Extension Nutrition and Health Specialist, College of Family and Consumer Sciences

John E. Vena, University of Georgia Foundation Professor in Public Health, Georgia
Research Alliance Distinguished Cancer Scientist, College of Public Health

Vena studies occupational and environmental risk factors for cancers of the prostate, breast and lungs, as well as childhood cancers. Crawley educates the public on ways to prevent cancer through exercise and diet, and on routine screenings available that can detect certain cancers in their earliest stages. Through a statewide cancer support network, including teams of researchers and UGA Extension agents, Vena and Crawley identify groups of people most at risk of developing cancer and work with those populations.

Raise awareness of environmental risk factors like obesity and smoking that have been linked to cancer, and increase the number of Georgians, particularly those in high-risk populations, like the elderly and minorities, who get regular cancer screenings.


Geert-Jan Boons, Franklin Professor of Chemistry, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences

Boons developed a vaccine that identifies tumors based on the overproduction of a protein called MUC1 on the surface of their cells. MUC1 is found on more than 70 percent of cancers that kill, such as breast, pancreatic, ovarian and multiple myeloma. The vaccine trains the immune system to distinguish and kill cancer cells based on the presence of the MUC1 proteins. Boons' vaccine has successfully triggered a strong immune response to cancer cells in mice. His group is testing and refining the vaccine and hopes to start clinical trials in humans soon.

Reduce the number of deaths from cancers such as breast, pancreatic, ovarian and multiple myeloma by detecting and destroying cancer cells as they develop.


Michael Pierce, Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Mudter Professor in Cancer Research and UGA Cancer Center director, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences

Ying Xu, Professor and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar of Bioinformatics, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences

Pierce and his team of UGA faculty and students have identified specific markers for breast, ovarian and pancreatic cancer. These markers each involve particular proteins that contain specific chains of sugar molecules, called glycans. These glycoproteins are on all cell surfaces and regulate cell communication. Early detection of these glycoproteins released from cells could allow doctors to diagnose and then treat these cancers earlier, when treatments are more effective. Xu and his research team analyze tissue samples, both cancerous and non-cancerous, to identify proteins with distinct expression levels in cancer but not in normal tissues. In tandem, they have developed computational software to identify distinct physical and chemical features of proteins that can secrete into blood or urine. By applying this tool to the proteins found to have distinct expression levels in specific cancer types, they can suggest marker proteins in blood or urine for diagnosis of specific cancers, making it possible to diagnose a specific cancer through blood or urine tests.

Develop urine and blood tests that can detect cancer in its early stages. Xu's lab developed the first urine test to detect gastric cancer. Pierce has identified specific glycans on particular proteins that can indicate breast, ovarian and pancreatic cancers through simple blood tests. The next stage for all these tests is to screen thousands of samples from patients with cancer and other diseases to determine how effective these tests will be clinically.


Mandi Murph, Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Cancer Scientist, American Cancer Society Research Scholar and Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences, College of Pharmacy

Shanta Dhar, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences

Murph develops and tests potential anti-cancer medications that block a pathway where tumor cells take advantage of a specific protein that stimulates cell growth and bypass the toxic effects of chemotherapy. Without this pathway, cells are far more sensitive to treatment and less likely to evolve into more resistant and aggressive tumors. Since there is no cure for ovarian cancer or advanced melanoma, Murph also explores new drugs that could offer treatment for these diseases. Dhar's research focuses on chemicals in cancer therapy that would increase effectiveness of the treatment and reduce unwanted side effects. Further research in her group also focuses on the development of new ways to deliver medications to cancer patients, which could revolutionize the options for tracking and treating breast and prostate cancers.

Develop powerful low-cost tools to treat cancer in humans.


Jeff Springston, Professor of Public Relations and Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication

Jeong-Yeob Han, Assistant Professor of Telecommunications, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication

Springston and Han measure how cancer patients find information and support services and how they benefit from those. Their research, eHealth Interventions, explores how effective social media outlets are in reaching cancer patients. By studying evaluations and content analyses of social networks, they understand how people engage with each other through sites like Facebook and Twitter and how patterns of information and support vary from one user to another based on the type of cancer they have. They also explore how media technologies such as the Internet, interactive DVDs, kiosks and cellphones can be used to encourage cancer screenings as they tailor messages to specific at-risk populations.

Find effective ways for people to use social media and technology to learn about types of cancer and prevention methods so that they can make good decisions about their health.

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