Rhode Island Hospital Researchers Awarded $3.9 Million Grant from Warren Alpert Foundation to Study Role of Epigenetics in Brain Cancer

A team of physician-scientists at Rhode Island Hospital have been awarded a transformational $3.9 million grant from the Warren Alpert Foundation for their cutting-edge work to fight glioblastoma, a highly aggressive and intractable cancer of the brain.

The grant from the Providence-based foundation funds exploration into the role of epigenetics in the progression of the disease and in its potential for treatment. Epigenetics is the study of how genes are modified without changing the underlying DNA.

Glioblastoma is notorious for its capacity to invade brain tissue and evade treatment. Its tumor cells’ extraordinary resilience leads to high rates of recurrence, and the median survival time is just two years following diagnosis.

The work is led by Steven A. Toms, MD, MPH, a neurosurgeon and the director of the Brain Tumor Program for the Lifespan Cancer Institute and vice chair of the Department of Neurology at Rhode Island Hospital, and Nikos Tapinos, MD, PhD, an Associate Professor at the Department of Neurosurgery and director of Molecular Neuroscience and Neuro-Oncology Research at Rhode Island Hospital.

“Glioma tumor cells, as we treat them, adapt to their environment – so what’s really happening in patients’ bodies in real time is evolution in action,” said Dr. Toms. “We’re exploring an entirely new front for Glioblastoma and epigenetics.”

As DNA stores the codes to create proteins – the building blocks of life – RNA serves as a link for passing that information from DNA to protein. Together, Dr. Toms and Dr. Tapinos see potential in targeting the protein, and not the gene, to stop the migration of glioblastoma. In the field of cancer, understanding how modification produces abnormal cells could lead to new ways of treating deadly glioblastoma.

“We believe that the RNA-based mechanisms that allow for modifications of gene expression are the ones that we’re going to be able to leverage in cancer therapeutics,” said Dr. Tapinos. “If you’re looking at the story of cancer, most all of it involves the epigenetic component.”

Brain science was a particular passion of businessman and philanthropist Warren Alpert, the founder of Warren Equities Inc. He established his charitable foundation in 1986 after his mother developed Alzheimer’s disease. The Warren Alpert Foundation is famous for its prize, which recognizes the world’s foremost scientists, physicians, and researchers for their breakthroughs in bio-medicine. Ten Warren Alpert Foundation Prize winners have gone on to receive Nobel prizes. In 2007, the foundation awarded $100 million to Brown University to establish the medical school that bears Warren Alpert’s name.