UTPA professor receives major grant to improve cancer research
Posted: 01/21/2009
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With cancer diagnoses expected to hit 12 million this year and global cancer deaths expected to reach seven million, The University of Texas-Pan American is working toward improving cancer research, specifically along the U.S.-Mexico border, with the help of a major grant received recently.

Dr. Bimal Banik

The more than $1.5 million grant, which was awarded by the National Institutes of Health, will develop collaborative research and student training partnerships between UTPA and the Cancer Therapy and Research Center at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. The projects, which started September 2008, will develop basic, translational, clinical and educational research on cancer related health disparities and will continue through August 2013. As principal investigator and program director, Dr. Bimal Banik received $910,000 of the grant for his work on the project.

"This grant is a great honor because it provides an avenue to improve cancer research in the Rio Grande Valley. It's great news for me, other faculty members and students here at UTPA, as it offers students a great opportunity to get actively involved in research that concerns them and their Hispanic community," Banik, who is the First President's Endowed Professor and professor of chemistry at UTPA, said. "I see each grant as an opportunity to make research advancements and for that I will always be thankful."

Banik said the objectives of the collaboration are to develop and foster cancer research at UTPA, foster research dedicated toward reducing the cancer burden on the Hispanic population, and increase the number of cancer researchers coming from South Texas. He said the partnership will be a great opportunity to encourage students toward creative thinking, enhance high-quality work techniques and acquire basic knowledge in the areas of medicinal chemistry, cancer biology, cancer disparities, and research strategies.

"These students will be focusing on synthetic design of novel anti-cancer drugs and we will be collaborating with UTHSCSA in order to test these drugs against cancer cells," Banik said. "Many of the chemicals that have been synthesized in prior research have proven to be effective in killing cancer cells and were relatively non-toxic to normal cells so they are potential candidates for further animal studies."

According to Cancer Facts and Figures (2008), approximately 82,000 people in the Latino/Hispanic population in the United States were diagnosed with cancer in 2006. During that same year, approximately 23,000 Latinos/Hispanics died from cancer.

"Because many are affected by cancer in some way or another, our research is important, timely and significant," Banik said. "This grant is only awarded to the most significant and cutting-edge research that is going on in the United States today. In general, NIH funds only three or four of these types of proposals a year."

Banik said students are also getting to explore an area of chemistry and biology not generally offered during regular lectures.

"We have been exposed to an area of science that requires hands-on experience - an area that many individuals are not exposed to until they are very far into their careers," said Sonya Rivera, a senior majoring in biology who is working on the research project under Banik. "I feel very privileged to be given the opportunity to be working with one of the most renowned scientists in the nation and at the same time working toward improving science and the well-being of my community."

Robert R. Rodriguez, a senior majoring in chemistry who is also working under Banik on the research, said working with a leading scientist has given him a lot of experience that will help him in the future.

"Exposure to research such as what we are doing in our lab gives young minds great ideas for the future and makes our hope for curing such diseases much greater," Rodriguez said. "I feel fortunate that the work I am doing will benefit the well-being of others and will significantly contribute to the pursuit of fighting cancer. This opportunity gives me a feeling of very high purpose because I can help with fighting a terminal disease."

Dr. Edwin LeMaster, dean of the College of Science and Engineering, said the partnership between UTPA and UTHSCSA in the area of cancer research will promote research excellence in the University's students.

"The partnership will enhance the collaboration between the institutions that will benefit the research faculty at UTPA and UTHSCSA and also give outstanding opportunities to our students to work in research labs here at UTPA and also at the medical school in San Antonio," LeMaster said.

Banik said this type of research experience is beneficial to both students and the Valley in general.

"This grant will provide a major boost in the development and awareness of cancer research in the Rio Grande Valley," Banik said. "All of this will definitely help UTPA students interested in obtaining Ph.D.'s, M.D.'s and those that are going into health related fields specializing in cancer treatment and drug development."

For more information about the cancer research and partnership with UTHSCSA, call Banik at 956/381-3371.