RIT scientist receives NIH grant to study viruses with potential to treat prostate cancer

Associate Professor Maureen Ferran secured $451,178 for a three-year study

A. Sue Weisler

An NIH-funded study led by Associate Professor Maureen Ferran, left, is exploring vesicular stomatitis virus’s (VSV) potential for treating prostate cancer.

The National Institutes of Health are funding Rochester Institute of Technology scientists to explore vesicular stomatitis virus’s (VSV) potential for treating prostate cancer. Associate Professor Maureen Ferran from the Thomas H. Gosnell School of Life Sciences secured a three-year, $451,718 Research Enhancement Award (R15) grant from the NIH to investigate prostate cancer cells’ susceptibility to the virus.

Many human cancer cells can be destroyed by VSV because they lack an antiviral response, but some are resistant to the virus. Using experimentation and computer modeling, Ferran, her team of undergraduate researchers from RIT, and co-PI Matthew Morris, a research scientist at Rochester General Hospital, aim to better understand the balance between a host’s ability to activate an antiviral response and VSV’s ability to evade these defenses in cancer cells.

“It turns out the majority of human cancers lack key parts of the early immune response, so they’re sitting ducks for viral infection,” said Ferran. “The hope is that if you have a tumor, the virus infects the tumor and destroys the cancer cells, but when it tries to replicate in the healthy surrounding tissue, the immune response is present and blocks the virus.”

The researchers are comparing cells derived from prostate cancer patients where VSV successfully killed the cells and comparing them to cells from prostate cancer patients that were VSV-resistant. The team is in the data accumulation phase. Morris will take the data collected and use algorithms to try to predict the pathways VSV might be impacting.

Ferran said that six undergraduate students from RIT’s biotechnology and molecular bioscience, biomedical sciences, and biology programs will be heavily involved in the research. She said the project will give the College of Science and College of Health Sciences and Technology students important exposure to hands-on research often reserved for graduate students at other universities, and that experiences like these help propel students to top graduate programs or prime jobs in research labs.

The study began in May 2021 and will be complete in May 2024.

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