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UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge awards $1 million for promising cancer research

May 31, 2024
Dr. Richard Van Etten, behind the podium, tells donors and supporters about the research the UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge has funded at a kickoff ceremony on May 30, 2024.

Dr. Richard Van Etten tells donors and supporters about critical research projects their efforts have funded at the UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Photo by Carlos Puma

Irvine, Calif. — The UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge has awarded $1 million raised in 2023 to fund a new round of transformative research projects at the UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and its pediatric cancer affiliate, Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC).

Richard A. Van Etten, MD, PhD, cancer center director and Anti-Cancer Challenge founder, revealed the ambitious roster of projects Thursday at a kickoff ceremony for the eighth annual ride-run-walk event, which will take place on Oct. 5, 2024, at UC Irvine’s Aldrich Park.

“These projects are poised to revolutionize the future of cancer diagnosis, treatment and prevention,” he told more than 70 donors, participants and supporters at the kickoff event on the Irvine campus.

Launched in 2017, the UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge is a community movement to raise awareness and funds for critical cancer research at the cancer center, the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center based in Orange County. Every dollar raised by challenge participants — a total of $4.7 million by 15,000 participants and their supporters since 2017 — has directly funded more than 120 promising cancer studies and early phase trials. In turn, Van Etten said the success of those pilot projects has generated:

  • More than $33 million in extramural grants to further the research studies
  • 11 active clinical trials that are accruing patients
  • The launch of seven start-up companies
  • Projects to address 24 specific community needs, including disparities of cancer care for underserved populations in Orange County

Among the 23 home-grown research projects selected for funding this year are:

  • A novel gut-liver axis as a risk factor for liver cancer. The study by Cholsoon Jang, PhD, a professor of biological chemistry in the UCI School of Medicine, seeks to understand the molecular mechanisms of diet on the gut microbiome and its interactions with the liver, especially among Latinos in Orange County and Southern California, who have a higher rate of liver cancer than the rest of the population.
  • Early detection and diagnosis of DNA repair-deficient hereditary cancers. This study by Nicholas Pannunzio, PhD, and Jennifer Valerin, MD, PhD, researchers with the Division of Hematology-Oncology at the UCI School of Medicine’s Department of Medicine, will explore better detection and diagnosis of people at high risk of developing hereditary cancer syndromes, especially at a young age.
  • Financial implications of a pediatric/adolescent/young adult cancer diagnosis on a patient’s quality of life and health outcomes. This study will examine health outcomes and the effects of financial hardship on these patients and their families across Orange County’s culturally diverse population. The project is led by CHOC pediatrician Sonia Morales, MD, MPH, an assistant professor in the UCI School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, with co-investigators clinical psychologists Michelle Fortier, PhD, and Michael Hoyt, PhD; and UCI Health diagnostic radiologist Gelareh Sadigh, MD.
  • An early phase clinical trial for resectable, recurrent glioblastoma (GBM). This phase 1b study will test dual cytotoxic and immune-stimulatory gene therapy in combination with the growth factor G-CSF to treat glioblastoma, among the most difficult cancers to treat with an average survival of 12 to 18 months. It is being led by UCI Health neuro-oncologist Daniela Bota, MD, PhD, the UCI School of Medicine’s vice dean for clinical research and director of the UCI Alpha Clinic, the clinical research arm of the UCI Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center.

UCI Health surgical oncologist Maheswari Senthil, MD, gave attendees a summary of research into a novel treatment for late-stage gastric cancer. The STOPGAP I clinical trial she conducted with UCI Health medical oncologist Farshid Dayyani, MD, PhD, has produced promising results that include patients who have no evidence of cancer up to three years after treatment.

She noted that a phase 3 STOPGAP II trial is expected to open nationally later this year. That could not have happened without seed money from the UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge.

“It is truly an honor and a privilege to share the work that has been funded through your support,” said Senthil, director of the UCI School of Medicine’s Center for Clinical Research and a professor and John Wayne Cancer Foundation endowed chair in Surgery.

“But first, I want to acknowledge Dr. Van Etten: The Anti-Cancer Challenge is his brain child and I am one of the beneficiaries of his efforts and your support. Please give him a round of applause.”

Van Etten also thanked corporate sponsors who have underwritten event costs, including the Anaheim Ducks, Monster Energy, KTLA 5, Hensel Phelps, Dunkin’. Corporate sponsor Puesto drew more applause when Sierra Skelly, a representative of the Mexican-American restaurant chain, presented a $15,000 donation to help kickoff this year’s challenge.

The 2024 UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge on Oct. 5 will feature bicycle rides ranging from 14 to 100 miles in length, along with a mountain bike ride to Crystal Cove State Park and back. Runners and walkers of all ages can participate in 5k and 10k events. These will take place amid a family-friendly festival atmosphere, featuring musical entertainment, awards, food and games for kids.

To register or learn more, visit the UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge website ›

Organizations interested in event sponsorship opportunities, may contact Jennifer Sarrail at Anti-CancerChallenge@uci.edu.

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UCI Health is the clinical enterprise of the University of California, Irvine, and the only academic health system based in Orange County. UCI Health is comprised of its main campus, UCI Medical Center, a 459-bed, acute care hospital in in Orange, Calif., four hospitals and affiliated physicians of the UCI Health Community Network in Orange and Los Angeles counties and ambulatory care centers across the region. Listed among America’s Best Hospitals by U.S. News & World Report for 23 consecutive years, UCI Medical Center provides tertiary and quaternary care and is home to Orange County’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centerhigh-risk perinatal/neonatal program and American College of Surgeons-verified Level I adult and Level II pediatric trauma centergold level 1 geriatric emergency department and regional burn center. UCI Health serves a region of nearly 4 million people in Orange County, western Riverside County and southeast Los Angeles County. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.