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Dr. Benencia awarded NIH research grant

Fabian Benencia, Ph.D., receives $177,000 from the National Institutes of Health to study how tumors recruit white blood cells

By Anita Martin

Jan. 13, 2009 

Fabian Benencia, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical sciences, has won a two-year, $177,000 National Institutes of Health grant to study how tumors attract leukocytes, or white blood cells, and use them for their own designs.

Researchers have observed leukocytes helping tumors grow, but the process of white blood cell recruitment—including the origin of these cells—is not well understood. Benencia has noticed changes in the bone marrow cell population during the formation of a tumor. He suggests that tumor-associated leukocytes form out of stem cells produced in the bone marrow.

His study, “Recruitment of bone marrow hematopoietic stem cells to tumors,” will examine hematopoietic (i.e., blood cell forming) stem cells that originate in bone marrow and may end up absorbed by tumors. Benencia points out that these are not embryonic stem cells, but adult stem cells that tumors can attract. He is using mouse models to confirm and study this process in breast and ovarian cancers.

“Bone-marrow stem cells normally turn into leukocytes that help the body fight infection,” Benencia says. But once recruited by the tumor, “sometimes they simply (abandon) their immune function, becoming dormant. Sometimes they produce factors that can actually help the tumor to grow.” 

Leukocytes can contribute to tumor growth by creating proteins that support the development of blood vessels, thereby helping to nourish the tumor.  

“If we can confirm that this population helps the tumor grow and better understand how it works, we may be able to somehow target those cells or otherwise prevent the process, helping to slow the growth of cancers,” Benencia says.

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