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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI researchers awarded $1.4 million in three grants from the American Cancer Society

Media Contact: Jhodi Redlich, 401-874-4500

Two research projects focus on behavior change, one on molecular biology

KINGSTON, R.I. -- August 3, 2005 -- Researchers at the University of Rhode Island have received more than $1.4 million in grants this year from the American Cancer Society for projects focused on a variety of factors linked to cancer.

Since estimates suggest that nearly one-third of cancer-related deaths could be prevented by lifestyle behavior modification, one of the researchers is working to develop strategies to help people change more than one behavior at a time and another researcher is testing the common behavior change models being used to achieve that change. The third research team is working in the lab on a cellular level to inhibit the growth of the cancer cells themselves.

All of the researchers are early in their careers and the grants are structured to help them to advance their academic and research capabilities.

The combined effect of changing behaviors: In his work with students and people of all ages, Bryan Blissmer, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology, knows that the messages about the many benefits of regular exercise, healthy eating, and not starting or stopping smoking abound.

Typical behavior change research and approaches have successfully focused on changing these single high-risk behaviors, yet these health behaviors are often clustered within individuals.

“Cancer is the number one health concern of Americans and the leading killer of people under age 85. We hear all the time about the risks of smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, being overweight, eating a poor diet, and not exercising. But we still all know people, maybe even ourselves, who aren't living a healthy lifestyle," Blissmer said.

"Of even more concern are those people that do several, or even all of these risky behaviors. We need more research on the best way to help people make changes in several cancer risk behaviors. Our research has tended to focus on doing one thing at a time, like helping someone stop smoking, but we need to think about the best way to also get that smoker to change their diet and start exercising so we can really help reduce their cancer risk."

Thanks to the $589,000 award from the American Cancer Society, Blissmer is reexamining the research that has already been done and working to map out potential behavior change approaches that may effect clustered behavior change.

Blissmer, who joined the University in 2000, began his research earlier this year looking into existing behavior change studies and will be developing new strategies focused on innovative approaches to impact the multiple behaviors that are increasing individuals’ cancer risks.

“Achieving multiple behavior changes for cancer prevention could have a significant impact on our ability to reduce both cancer incidence and cancer mortalities. Since the majority of the population engage in two or more behaviors related to higher cancer risk, a tailored program to reach the general population could have a significant impact on cancer rates in the United States,” said Blissmer.

Tracking the model used for changing behaviors: A health psychologist and an American Cancer Society postdoctoral fellow based at URI’s Cancer Prevention Research Center, Kara Hall is also looking at interventions to decrease unhealthy behaviors and to increase healthy ones.

Hall is focusing on a particular methodology being used to shape behavior change interventions, the ‘Transtheoretical Model’ that was developed at URI and recognized internationally. With her recent $124,000 award, Hall plans to conduct a comprehensive examination of the model across cancer-related behaviors.

“Thousands of health promotion and cancer prevention studies have used the Transtheoretical Model of behavior change. It offers researchers a way to understand behavior change, provides the foundation for tools to determine an individual’s readiness to change, and is used in tailoring interventions to initiate behavior change,” Hall explained. “But through the years there hasn’t been a comprehensive test of the model across behaviors and populations.”

With her extensive experience in research methodology and expert system development for current behavior change programs, Hall plans to analyze hundreds of preexisting data sets from studies across more than 15 cancer-related behaviors.

“My study will challenge the theoretical assumptions of the current model and produce a set of cumulative data about the research projects that have been done. This way interventions for changing behavior will be based on empirical data rather than on theory alone,” said Hall, who received both her Master’s and Doctoral degrees in psychology at URI and focused her thesis and dissertation on the Transtheoretical model.

Hall said this study will help to guide the creation of “next generation” optimally tailored interventions for cancer prevention and control.

Modifying the behavior of cells: Gongqin Sun, associate professor of cell and molecular biology, and Kay Parang, assistant professor of pharmacy, were awarded a $715,000 American Cancer Society grant to continue their research into developing a system for inhibiting cancer growth and better understanding the activated enzymes in cancer cells.

“The family of enzymes called protein tyrosine kinases play important roles in our cells by helping control the growth of normal cells,” said Sun, a resident of Wakefield. “In cancer cells, something has gone wrong with the regulation of these enzymes, leading to their activation, and the cells grow abnormally. One way to treat cancer is to develop molecule inhibitors to block the activity of the enzymes.”

Sun and Parang have already discovered a unique mechanism for blocking protein tyrosine kinases. The Cancer Society grant will now support their efforts to apply this mechanism in the development of a drug to block the activity of the enzymes in cancer cells.

Sun hopes his research to find a “mechanism-based inhibition strategy” for designing drugs will eventually be used by drug makers and other research teams to form a new foundation for drug development. He believes the strategy his team is developing can be applied to a wide variety of enzymes that lead to many forms of cancer.

Equally important is Sun and Parang’s work to answer more basic questions about how enzymes work. NIH granted them $786,000 to pursue this line of research.

“We know that when these enzymes are activated they can transform a normal cell into a cancer cell, but we don’t know how they do it,” Sun said. “Each enzyme does unique things in the cell, so we’re going to take them apart and see how they work. We need to understand how they work in order to develop inhibitors to stop them.”

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URI’s American Cancer Society scholars: Three researchers at the University of Rhode Island have received grants totaling more than $1.4 million in grants from the American Cancer Society for projects focused on a variety of factors linked to cancer. Shown here the researchers were joined by Dr. Jerome Yates (center), national vice president of research for the American Cancer Society at URI’s Cancer Prevention Research Center. From left to right are, Gongqin Sun, assistant professor of cell and molecular biology; Dr. Yates; American Cancer Society postdoctoral fellow Kara Hall; and Bryan Blissmer, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology.