Research Challenge Trust Fund

Focus on Faculty

RangnekarVivek M. Rangnekar
Alfred Cohen Chair in Oncology Research

Vivek Rangnekar serves and the associate director of transdisciplinary collaboration at the Markey Cancer Center—Kentucky’s only NCI-designated cancer center—and co-leads the center’s cell biology & signaling research program. Rangnekar earned his Ph.D. from the University of Bombay and conducted postdoctoral training at the University of Chicago, before coming to UK in 1992. His team studies the molecular crosstalk between oncogenes (genetic material that has the ability to produce cancer) and tumor suppressor genes. His strategy is to utilize the inherent strengths of the tumor against itself, to specifically target cell survival mechanisms that are common to many different types of cancer. Rangnekar focuses on the multi-faceted tumor suppressor protein Par-4/PAWR, which he first identified in 1993. He says what makes Par-4 so special is that it is not mutated as frequently as other known suppressors, and Par-4 will only kill cancer cells and not normal cells. Par-4 can become “suppressed” or inactivated, leading to tumor re-growth, but Par-4 can be activated again—and one of the next major steps is developing a safe and effective way to activate Par-4 in cancerous cells. With funding from the National Cancer Institute, Rangnekar’s team is looking at natural and synthetic agents that may help restore the expression of Par-4 in human cells, allowing the cancerous cells to become susceptible to treatment. Several UK investigators are now examining the role of Par-4 in chronic lymphocytic leukemia and aggressive brain tumors called glioblastomas, as well as developing small molecules that can activate Par-4 and kill cancer cells. “Our multi-disciplinary team, working together, uses a multi-faceted strategy in our research,” Rangnekar says. “This allows us to gain a better understanding of the complexities of cancer in order to effectively kill recurrent tumor cells, especially those that have spread.”

HarringtonNancy Harrington
Douglas A. and Carole A. Boyd Professor in Communication

Nancy Harrington is a professor in the College of Communication and Information, where she serves as associate dean for research. She holds a joint appointment in the College of Public Health. Harrington has been a principal investigator, co-investigator, or principal evaluator on several NIH-funded and CDC-funded studies totaling approximately $8.5 million. She’s published more than 50 scholarly journal articles and chapters, and served as guest editor for a special issue, focused on communication strategies to reduce health disparities, of the Journal of Communication, the flagship journal of the International Communication Association. Harrington says, “Analyzing messages helps us understand how to design them to most effectively provide people the health information they need to make good decisions regarding health promotion and disease prevention behaviors. Subtle changes in the content, format, and structure of messages can have an impact on whether or not people pay attention to them, process them, and are informed or persuaded by them.” Harrington is currently working on a text-based messaging system for patients to communicate with their healthcare providers after they’ve been discharged from the hospital. “The system was developed with an NSF grant to Dan O’Hair and Derek Lane. We’re proposing to partner with colleagues from UK Healthcare to test the intervention’s effectiveness in reducing hospital readmission rates.” UK has an outstanding reputation in health communication for two reasons, says Harrington: “Our faculty has been associated with projects that have brought more than $50 million to UK. We’ve been one of the most highly funded communication departments in the nation. A second reason is our biennial Kentucky Conference on Health Communication (KCHC). Since it began in 1989, KCHC has grown into an internationally recognized venue for researchers, practitioners, and students from health communication and other health-related sciences to present cutting-edge research. The conference has really put Kentucky on the map.”

FollingstadDiane Follingstad
Women’s Circle Endowed Chair

Diane Follingstad is a professor in the UK College of Medicine Department of Psychiatry. Her expertise is in clinical and forensic psychology and she is director of the Center for Research on Violence Against Women (CRVAW). Follingstad’s research has resulted in 85 journal articles and a book, and her recent work has focused on comparing different methods of assessing how decisions are made to prosecute battered women who have killed their partner, to illustrate how less conscious biases impact these decisions. Follingstad says, “Probably my most significant contribution has been both research and commentary designed to enhance the measurement of psychological abuse, which has been a difficult concept to measure.” She is currently a PI with CRVAW colleague Ann Coker to evaluate the long-term effects of a bystander intervention program called Green Dot conducted in Kentucky high schools to identify differences in students who attend college and those who do not. “With Dr. Coker, we have almost completed a project that looks at the impact on women’s treatment and recovery from cancer when partners engage in interfering/controlling behaviors or intimate partner abuse, and we are extending this concept in a new grant proposal to look at partner impact on both women and men with colorectal cancer.” Another proposed study, with Claire Renzetti, involves testing an online educational intervention to determine whether nursing personnel improve in their identification of sex trafficking cases. The strength of CRVAW lies in its multidisciplinary team, says Follingstad. “Our endowed faculty consist of an epidemiologist, a sociologist/criminologist, and two psychologists, but we regularly end up working with a biostatistician and other faculty from social work, psychiatry, psychology, and communications. There is no question that our final research products are greatly improved by the involvement of faculty from a range of disciplines.” The center is also working on new mechanisms for research training for postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduate students.

ThorsonJon Thorson
UK Chandler Medical Center Endowed Chair in Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation

Jon Thorson is a professor of pharmaceutical sciences, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation (CPRI), and also serves in co-director roles for the Markey Cancer Center and the Center for Clinical and Translational Science. Thorson holds 23 patents and his area of expertise is natural products—molecules that have evolved for function over time. “Examples with anticancer activity include the microbial toxins calicheamicin and esperamicin. These natural products were first reported as I was starting graduate school, and I wrote what was presumably a very naive research proposal on the synthesis/biosynthesis of these molecules as a requirement for one of my Ph.D. courses. In an interesting twist of fate, the study of calicheamicin biosynthesis became one of the two main projects in my lab when I launched my independent career at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center roughly a decade later.” Thorson explains that instead of synthesizing new molecules through complex chemistry, if you can manipulate the natural machinery that generates useful molecules you can speed up the process of drug development. Thorson’s team is isolating new natural products from the Commonwealth for the “UK Natural Products Repository” (which contains 133 bacterial natural products isolated from subterranean and mining-associated environments via collaboration with the Center for Applied Energy Research, the Kentucky Geologic Survey, U.S. Coal, and the Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands) and the “UK Synthetics Collection” (which contains 556 compounds including natural product mimics, modified natural products, and synthetic intermediates/fragments). The goal of these collections is to share promising compounds with researchers at UK to screen for new activities. Thorson says, “In 2.5 years, CPRI has engaged in 26 projects with UK investigators and four additional external projects with pharma and other academic institutions, where we have focused on building preliminary data to support new grant applications and intellectual property, as well as advancing science into, and through, clinical evaluation.”