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Scientist Gets $5 Million NIH Grant

By Gregory S. Krauss

A little money goes a long way. A lot goes even further.

Just ask Harvey C. Cantor, professor of pathology at the Medical School and a researcher at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, who is getting his own national Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

After 20 years of doing ground breaking immune system research, Cantor was awarded $5 million to study the immune system and find revolutionary treatments for cancer over the next eight to 10 years.

Robert F. Moore, a fund manager for NIH, says the MERIT award will allow Cantor to continue his research.

"It's a recommendation for past service and future potential," Moore says. "It's not a retirement gift."

The grant is remarkable because he will not have to reapply for funding every few years, Cantor says.

This also means that Cantor will be able to attract the brightest researchers to assist him, says Georg F. Weber, an immunologist working with Cantor.

"Who would not want to work in a lab of someone who has put themself in such an outstanding position?" Weber says.

The NIH gave a total of 51 Merit Awards in 1996, Moore says. Scientists are chosen carefully, going through several stages of scrutiny before final approval, he says. However, he says the grant is not a sure thing quite yet.

"Our entire government operates on a year-to-year basis," he says. "These are considered moral commitments, but they can be cut in a minute."

Cantor says he is "delighted" to have received his MERIT award, although he says he is unsure why his MERIT award came just now.

"Beats me," Cantor says. "I think it's just a reward for the fellows and students I have working with me."

Fans of Cantor say they think that NIH has chosen wisely--especially because he and his team of more than 15 researchers are on the cusp of developing a promising treatment for cancer.

"[The MERIT Award] is not quite where the Nobel Prize is but it's certainly well respected within the scientific community," Weber says.

According to Cantor, his team is trying to develop inhibiting peptides which can block the nefarious activities of osteopontin--a protein secreted by tumors.

Cantor says his research has shown that a cancer cell's lifespan may be increased by binding with osteopontin. Since osteopontin is in motion, its binding moves cancer cells throughout the body, allowing it to metastasize--creating secondary cancer tumors, which make the disease more difficult to treat.

Cantor says he thinks crippling cancer cell osteopontin could mean wonders for cancer patients.

"I suspect that approaches based on this model would be much less toxic than chemotherapy," Cantor says.

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Cancer cells and disease fighting immune cells called T-cells may appear to have nothing in common--one is a disease and the other fights disease.

However, there is at least one thing they've got--both secrete their own form of osteopontin, Cantor says.

In fact, Cantor says he only began to look at the role osteopontin plays with cancer cells through dedicated research of T-cells. Years ago, Cantor found that osteopontin that was secreted by immune cells travels to infected areas. Once there, osteopontin attracts white blood cells which ingest harmful bacteria and viruses.

Scientists had already discovered that cancer cells produce mass quantities of osteopontin, but they were mystified as to its function, Cantor says.

Cantor proposed and verified that osteopontin which is secreted by cancer cells behaves similarly, drawing the malignancies to all corners of the body just as T-cell osteopontin draws white blood cells to infections.

About eight years ago, the researchers discovered the gene that cancer cells use to make osteopontin. This advance will help them synthesize the proper peptide to block the osteopontin produced by tumors, Cantor says.

The search for the perfect peptide is complicated by the fact that it must not block the activities of the type of osteopontin produced by immune cells. Cantor says additional snags are that the peptide must not be biologically harmful and must be tested on laboratory animals before human trials.

Cantor says he does not want to make predictions about if or when his research will result in practical applications.

"The general rule is that you shouldn't predict anything in research and science," Weber says. "You never know what's going to come out."

Cantor says he hopes that his research with osteopontin inhibitors can be used to fight AIDS, but says that is a longshot.

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