Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) El Paso has received more than a quarter-million dollars to study the proteins that contribute to disease progression and drug resistance in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). Leukemia is a form of cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
Between 2014 and 2018, there was an average of 93 leukemia cases each year in El Paso County, 67 of which were Hispanic patients, according to the National Cancer Institute. Texas averaged 3,819, of which, 929 were Hispanic patients.
The Elsa U. Pardee Foundation awarded Anna Eiring, Ph.D., assistant professor in TTUHSC El Paso’s Center of Emphasis in Cancer, $143,000 for research on new drug targets in AML. Her study recently identified health disparities in Hispanic AML patients from El Paso who have higher incidence rates and worse overall survival compared to AML patients elsewhere in Texas. While many AML patients initially respond to therapy, the five-year survival rate is bleak. Less than 25% survive, due to drug resistance and relapse. Each year, the Elsa U. Pardee Foundation reviews an estimated 300 grant applications, but awards less than 50.
“I first became interested in hematology and oncology when my uncle passed away from lymphoma, another type of blood cancer,” said Dr. Eiring, whose passion for leukemia was sparked during graduate school at The Ohio State University. When she arrived at TTUHSC El Paso in July 2018, she was able to fuel that passion. “In 2019, I started a leukemia biobank to obtain patient samples on campus. I wanted to know the incidence and survival for patients in the region to better understand the samples we’re collecting.”
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) awarded Dr. Eiring $119,800 to study the role of a tumor suppressor gene in CML. Currently, CML is well-controlled with drugs that target the protein that causes the disease. However, the treatment often does not lead to a cure, and lifelong treatment is costly and has significant side effects. Dr. Eiring hopes her study of the tumor suppressor gene will lead to better treatments for myeloid leukemias.
“There’s an urgent need for strategies that target myeloid leukemia cells – before they develop therapy resistance – to improve survival outcomes for high-risk patients,” Dr. Eiring said. “A central goal of our research is to understand the molecular mechanisms allowing for stem cell survival and drug resistance in myeloid malignancies, and to target those pathways for treatments that could lead to a cure.”
Working with Dr. Eiring on the project are Alfonso Bencomo, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research associate and expert in genomics; Mayra Gonzalez, a medical research technician and expert in molecular biology and animal models; and Idaly Olivas, M.S., a medical research technician and expert in tissue culture, flow cytometry and gene expression control.
Dr. Bencomo recently received a Minority Scholar in Cancer Research Award from the American Association for Cancer Research for his contribution to these projects. Additionally, Joshua J. Lara, a third-year TTUHSC El Paso medical student, received an award from the American Society of Hematology Minority Medical Student Award Program for his work in Dr. Eiring’s lab.
Dr. Eiring arrived at TTUHSC El Paso with a Transition Career Development Award from the NCI for her study of a protein-coding gene’s role in chronic myeloid leukemia. The supplementary funds she recently received are in addition to a previous $584,210 award.
TTUHSC El Paso is the only health sciences center on the U.S.- Mexico border and serves 108 counties in West Texas that have been historically underserved. It is one of only two health sciences centers in the nation designated as Title V Hispanic-Serving Institutions, preparing the next generation of health care heroes, 48% of whom identify as Hispanic.
Research conducted in TTUHSC El Paso’s four Centers of Emphasis focuses on conditions directly impacting Hispanic populations, including diabetes, cancer, infectious diseases and neurological disorders. University researchers also study health disparities, helping to meet health care challenges in the Borderland.