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Prestigious training grant extended five more years

By Heidi Lynn Russell

Penn State College of Medicine has again been successful in extending funding from the National Cancer Institute through a training grant for vital research into viruses that cause cancer. This training grant has been in place for more than 20 years.

This August, the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and the Penn State Cancer Institute were successful in renewing the training grant funding to continue groundbreaking research for another five years – something that many other universities have not been able to achieve, said Dr. Craig Meyers. Distinguished Professor of Microbiology and Immunology. “We’re listed right up there with the big names,” he said. “A lot of universities want it.” Meyers, director of the Viruses and Cancer Training Program wrote the grant.

Training Grants are highly desirable grants, aimed at training predoctoral students and postdoctoral fellows in specific areas of research. Across the country, there are very few training grants that focus on viruses and cancer.

“This is a very difficult effort, especially since the majority of renewals of training grants with this longevity have been unsuccessful in obtaining their renewals,” he added. “The longer you’ve had them, the harder it is to get them renewed.”

Understanding cancer-causing viruses

 There are seven human cancer viruses, Meyers explained. Understanding their causes and effects, what prevents them and how to treat them has been the focus of the College of Medicine’s research. Viruses are among the most important carcinogens known, accounting for over 15 percent of all human cancers.

“The focus is to work on those seven viruses – but someone could also work on animal models,” Meyers said. In addition, researchers are digging into other cancer-prevention tactics. For example, viruses that play no role in causing human cancer can be used to treat cancer, either by direct killing of tumor cells or serving transmitters to target death to tumor cells.  Members of the Viruses and Cancer Training Grant are also researching the field of immunology related cancer.  Novel immunotherapeutic strategies for the prevention and treatment of a range of human cancers are growing in importance.  Researchers monitor immune responses in cancer patients undergoing therapy, too.

The research focuses on hepatitis B viruses, herpesviruses, papillomaviruses (HPV), polyomaviruses, and retroviruses while programs in immunology focus on tumor immunology, autoimmunity, antigen presentation, antiviral immunity and stress-induced immunity. “We also have biochemists and molecular biologists who are not working on a virus, but the work they do is important for understanding how the virus interacts with the host and induces carcinogenic pathways.”

Historically, the College of Medicine’s research was important in the development of the vaccine against HPV, Meyers said.

“There were four of us who have worked on the vaccine,” he said. “We also were involved in the vaccine production, too. It’s not all due to the training grant, but students who worked on the projects were on the training grant, too.”

“One of the most exciting aspects of this award is the mixture of scientists across departments who will be interacting to exchange ideas and experimental approaches with the trainees,” saidd Dr. Leslie Parent, vice dean for research and graduate studies. “It is so important to train students and postdoctoral fellows to collaborate and learn to use methods from different disciplines to answer complex research questions.”

Stiff requirements for students and fellows

 The training grant provides support (tuition, stipend, travel, and supplies) for two predoctoral students and two postdoctoral fellows.

“Typically, we appoint trainees for a year. Many of them go on and do two years,” he explained.

The faculty includes basic scientists and physician scientists from the both the Hershey and University Park campuses.

“A unique aspect of the Viruses and Cancer Training Program is the combined strength of research in the fields of virology and immunology, as they relate to human cancer and hence the enormous translational potential that can be realized in the synergy of the research areas,” Meyers said.

The department seeks individuals who are highly motivated and committed to an independent research career. Candidates must have: 1) a Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. in molecular biology, cell biology, biochemistry, virology or immunology and 2) strong graduate research training, as demonstrated by first-authored publications. MD fellows may also apply. Individuals with no previous postdoctoral experience are preferred. Applicants (U.S. citizen/permanent resident status required for these T32 positions) submit their curriculum vitae, an overview of their prior research experience and interests, as well as names of three references.

“We applaud Dr. Meyers and his team of training faculty mentors for their success and look forward to the impact of their research on improvements in human health,” said Parent.

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