Marathon Run to Support Pioneering Genomic Research into Signet Ring Colon Cancer

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Joseph Willis, MD, a member of the Signet Ring Colon Cancer Research Group at UH Seidman Cancer Center will be running the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon on Saturday, May 16th to raise funds for this innovative program.

Dr Willis is a member of a team of experts in colon cancer biology from University Hospitals, UH Seidman Cancer Center and the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center at Case Western Reserve University which have assembled the first-ever comprehensive archive of samples of signet ring colon cancer, with an eye toward elucidating the molecular biology and genomics of this rare but deadly cancer.

Signet Ring Colon Cancer Group - UH Seidman Cancer Center 
Pictured left to right: Kishore Guda, PhD, Ted Teknos, MD, Director, UH Seidman Cancer Center, Sanford Markowitz, MD, PhD, Joseph Willis MD, Vinay Varadan, PhD.

“Even though the complexities of colon cancer have been subjugated to a large number of studies, advanced technologies have never been put together to study signet ring colon cancer,” says Dr. Willis, who Vice Chairman of Pathology for Translational Research at UH Cleveland Medical Center, and is leading the group, along with Sanford Markowitz, MD, PhD, colon cancer genetics specialist at UH Seidman Cancer Center and the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the Markowitz-Ingalls professorship of Cancer Genetics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. “Because signet ring tumors are relatively uncommon, it’s proven quite difficult to accumulate enough patients and patient material to actually study them comprehensively. It’s been challenging, but over three years we’ve gathered a collection of specimens from different pathology departments around the country, as well as one international site.” Members of the team include Dr. Willis and Dr. Markowitz, medical oncologist David Bajor, MD, and Vinay Varadan, PhD, and Kishore Guda, PhD, from the GI Cancer Genetics Program at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Signet Ring Colon Cancer Signet ring colon cancer.

The group has been supported in its work by donations to UH from the family and foundation of UH Seidman patient Alla Bogomolnaya; by the family, supporters and foundation of Illinois signet ring colon cancer patient Michael P. Brown; by the family and supporters of Texas signet ring colon cancer patient Taylor Helland at the Andrew McDonough B+ Foundation; and by the family, supporters and foundation of Toledo signet ring colon cancer patient Michael Simone. In Illinois, the fundraising effort has mobilized an entire community of supporters who have participated in the Michael’s Run for Life Festivals to help the research.

In addition to creating the signet ring colon cancer sample archive, the team is also prosecuting a series of experiments to identify the genes that drive this lethal cancer, with the aim of ultimately designing new therapies to treat the disease and new ways to detect the disease early.

“These studies will potentially allow us to identify nuanced aspects of the biology of signet ring cancers of the colon, which could be used to explore for treatment options that are not currently understood,” Dr. Willis says. “We’re looking at mutations and different cellular pathways, different genes that are over-expressed, so it’s both the structural and expression aspects of signet ring colon cancer genetics.

Dr. Willis says. “After that, we hope to identify potential molecular events that could be affected by a targeted therapeutic. There may be a targeted therapeutic that we have now that may work in signet ring colon cancers. We may also get an insight from the biologic examination that will show whether a therapeutic could be designed.”

Ultimately, Dr. Willis says, the research group hopes its findings won’t be limited just to colon cancer. “We recognize that if something were identified in signet ring colon cancer, we could determine whether the same features are potentially present in signet ring cancers of other organs,” he says.

For more information about this work, please email Joseph.Willis@UHhospitals.org.

Revised 5/13/2020. Article originally appeared in Innovations in Cancer | Winter 2019

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