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University of Pittsburgh Receives $11M NIH SPORE Award to Continue Research Excellence in Head and Neck Cancer

February 3, 2023

The University of Pittsburgh was awarded a five-year, $11.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support a Head and Neck Cancer Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in 2022.  The award will be led by Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD, Director of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, and Heath Skinner, MD, PhD, Chair and Associate Professor, Department of Radiation Oncology.

The SPORE program is a cornerstone effort by NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) to promote collaborative, interdisciplinary translational cancer research, aiming to translate novel scientific discoveries from the laboratory and/or population studies to the clinic for testing in humans with cancer or at risk for cancer.

The goal of the Head and Neck Cancer SPORE at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is to better understand the efficiency of personalized treatments, including immunotherapies, for head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Three clinical questions will be addressed:

1. Why does immunotherapy fail to benefit most HNSCC patients?
2. What is the best strategy to decrease side effects using personalized treatment in human papillomavirus-positive (HPV+) HNSCC?
3. What is the most rational way for integrating combination immunotherapy into currently available treatments?

This research builds on years of research at the institution, including 15 years of prior funding for the Head and Neck SPORE. That work includes an organ-specific database with detailed clinical and pathological information on over 12,000 patients followed for more than 30 years, four novel investigator-initiated clinical trials, and a team comprising both highly experienced and established investigators and accomplished early-stage investigators.

In addition, three SPORE-specific core facilities are supported as part of the research infrastructure for the Head and Neck SPORE. First, an Administrative Core provides scientific and administrative oversight, support planning and evaluation, and oversee the organ specific database. The second is a Tissue/Pathology/Imaging Core to collect, characterize, and disperse biospecimens and clinical images. The third is a Bioinformatics/Biostatistics Core to design and analyze sufficiently powered preclinical and clinical studies and integrate study results, including complex multi-omics data, into meaningful models. To ensure a continuous pipeline of diverse investigators and projects for advancing head and neck cancer research, the SPORE also includes a Career Enhancement Program and Developmental Research Program.

The Head and Neck SPORE is one of two SPOREs awarded to the University of Pittsburgh and one of 11 SPORES supported by the NIH in 2022. The second SPORE at the University of Pittsburgh is the Melanoma and Skin Cancer SPORE, led by Hassane Zarour, MD, and John Kirkwood, MD. The overall goal of the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Program SPORE is to develop novel translational research to overcome the hurdles of current therapies of melanoma and cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma.