Drs. Erik Knudsen and Agnieszka Witkiewicz
Drs. Erik Knudsen and Agnieszka Witkiewicz

Research Grants Bring More Than $29 Million Supporting Work of Roswell Park Scientists

Another $6.2 million in new funds supports studies seeking to improve cancer treatment

  • Focuses of new projects range from nanotechnology to biomarkers to COVID-19
  • $2.15 million award aims at better treatments for ER-positive breast cancers
  • Another proposes tool for assessing skill and performance of robotic surgeons

BUFFALO, N.Y. — New grants from public and private funding organizations will bring another $6.2 million to support research at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. These latest awards fund a diverse range of projects, including explorations into personalized treatments for breast cancer, improvements to robot-assisted surgery and a new treatment option for COVID-19. Along with two recent multimillion-dollar awards from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) — $14.54 million for clinical trials assessing a new strategy for making cancer immunotherapies work for more patients and $5.2 million for an investigation into breast cancer disparities between Black women and white women — recent awards have brought $29.1 million in competitive research funding from outside agencies.

The projects receiving funding seek to improve outcomes for people with many different cancer types, including breast cancer, colon cancer, melanoma, neuroendocrine tumors and pediatric leukemia. Several of the efforts will employ new approaches — a novel therapeutic target for metastatic breast cancer, use of nanotechnology in a cancer vaccine and measuring circulating tumor DNA to predict how neuroendocrine tumors will respond to therapy.

“The current public health emergency provides an even greater perspective and appreciation for science, understanding of personal and community health, and hope for disease recovery and prevention,” says Congressman Brian Higgins. “Research grants are highly competitive. Roswell Park’s consistent success in earning grants is good for scientific advancement and for Western New York.”

Erik Knudsen, PhD, Chair of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Agnieszka Witkiewicz, MD, Director of the Center for Personalized Medicine, received a five-year, $2.15 million R01 award from the NCI for research to develop a better approach for treating late-stage, estrogen receptor (ER)-positive breast cancer. Their project aims at new treatment options for patients with metastatic breast cancer — a challenging diagnosis.

“Our work over the last few years has shown that there are key cellular pathways that are critical determinants of how patients respond to endocrine and targeted therapies — some of the most commonly employed treatments for people with advanced, metastatic breast cancer,” says Dr. Knudsen.

“For this project, we’re going to focus on one such pathway, the RB tumor-suppressor pathway, looking at ways to use personalized medicine to make treatments more effective,” adds Dr. Witkiewicz. “We are very fortunate to work with Roswell Park’s breast cancer clinical team, which is exceptionally strong and successful in translating research discoveries to clinical care.”

“Despite all of our advances, metastatic breast cancer remains incurable,” notes another key collaborator, medical oncologist Tracey O’Connor, MD, Associate Professor of Oncology. “We hope that a better understanding of this pathway will lead to meaningful breakthroughs in treatment for our patients, and our clinical team enthusiastically supports these translational efforts.”

Other highlights among projects recently awarded grants from public agencies or private organizations:

  • Somayeh Besharat Shafiei, PhD, MSc, Assistant Professor of Oncology in the Department of Urology, received a four-year, $1.57 million grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) for her work to develop a tool to assess a surgeon’s skill performing robot-assisted surgery, or RAS. “Robot-assisted surgery offers advantages for both surgeons and patients, yet there is no clinically practical tool for objective evaluation of the surgeon’s expertise level and performance,” explains Dr. Shafiei. “This project will use physiological signals, such as synchronized brain dynamics and eye movement trajectory, as input to machine-learning algorithms to assess skills and monitor performance. Such an assessment tool could help optimize RAS training, improve surgical outcomes, result in more frequent use of RAS in complex surgical areas and ultimately lead to better patient safety.”
  • Scott Abrams, PhD, Professor of Oncology in the Department of Immunology, received a five-year, $962,354 multi-principal investigator R01 award from the National Cancer Institute for research that uses the immune system to fight against cancer in a manner similar to vaccination. This investigation, part of a collaboration with Jonathan Lovell, PhD, of the University at Buffalo, employs a novel type of nanotechnology engineered to immunize against cancers to produce robust and durable anti-cancer immune responses. This work focuses on colon cancer, breast cancer and melanoma, but may aid in the design of novel formulations and immunotherapy combinations for multiple cancer types.
    • Dr. Abrams is also co-investigator, along with Principal Investigator Andrei Bakin, PhD, Associate Professor of Oncology in the Department of Cancer Genetics and Genomics, on a project funded by a two-year, $200,000 grant from Metavivor Research and Support Inc. for efforts to develop a new multiagent or “combination” therapy to improve treatment for patients with metastatic, triple-negative breast cancer — an aggressive and hard-to-treat subtype of breast cancer. Their work focuses on ways to counteract immune suppression, a complex process that diminishes the effect of some commonly prescribed immunotherapies, including immune checkpoint inhibitors.
  • Andrei Gudkov, PhD, DSci, Senior Vice President for Research Technology and Innovation, received a two-year, $663,853 grant from the Sens Research Foundation for the study “Cells with active retrobiome as anti-aging treatment targets.”
  • Roswell Park received $420,500 toward the clinical study led by Pawel Kalinski, MD, PhD, and Brahm Segal, MD, of a two-drug immunotherapy combination as treatment for COVID-19. Dr. Kalinski has led pioneering studies proposing that rintatolimod (Ampligen) and interferon-alfa (Intron A) be given in combination as treatment for some cancers. The new funds for the study in patients with cancer and COVID-19 are a supplement to Roswell Park’s core grant from the NCI.
  • Sarbajit Mukherjee, MD, MS, Assistant Professor of Oncology and medical oncologist specializing in gastrointestinal cancers, received a two-year, $100,000 award from the North American Neuroendocrine Tumor Society (NANETS) for investigating whether circulating tumor DNA can serve as a biomarker that predicts response to therapy in high-grade neuroendocrine tumor.
  • Nicoletta Sacchi, PhD, Professor of Oncology in the Department of Genetics and Genomics, received a one-year, $30,000 grant from the Children’s Leukemia Research Association (CLRA) for a study titled “A transient non-coding RNA molecule might predict the onset and relapse of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) ahead of time.” Pediatric AML is characterized by genetic mutations that are necessary, but not sufficient, to cause leukemia, and this work focuses on a mutant gene — RUNX1 — that affects the production of blood cells.


Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center is a community united by the drive to eliminate cancer’s grip on humanity by unlocking its secrets through personalized approaches and unleashing the healing power of hope. Founded by Dr. Roswell Park in 1898, it is the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in Upstate New York. Learn more at www.roswellpark.org, or contact us at 1-800-ROSWELL (1-800-767-9355) or ASKRoswell@RoswellPark.org.

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