UNE receives $100,000 Department of Defense grant to combat rare kidney cancer

Portrait of Harry Filippakis
Harry Filippakis, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biomedical Sciences

The University of New England has been awarded $100,000 in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to spearhead innovative research aimed at combating a rare and aggressive form of kidney cancer. The new grant underscores UNE’s growing reputation for excellence in biomedical research.

The one-year grant from the DOD marks the first-ever grant to UNE from the Department of Defense and emphasizes the commitment of both institutions to combatting pervasive human disease. The grant is part of the Kidney Cancer Research Program administered through the DOD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs initiative.

Led by Harry Filippakis, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, the groundbreaking research project will focus on exploring novel methods to suppress the growth of cancerous cells in translocation renal cell carcinoma (tRCC), a particularly challenging form of kidney cancer characterized by genetic abnormalities that make it resistant to conventional treatments.

This type of cancer is more common in children and young adults and makes up 1% to 5% of all renal cell carcinomas. Out of those, about 20% are comprised of pediatric cases.

According to Filippakis, tRCC carcinogenesis is driven by mutations of a gene called TFE3, which fuses with other genes. He and his team will study how TFE3 activation influences the metabolism, growth, and survival of kidney cancer cells and will explore molecular targets aiming to reverse the effects of TFE3 in tRCC.

Leveraging an advanced high throughput screening technique using the genome editing technology CRISPR, Filippakis and his team will investigate molecular pathways associated with tRCC tumor growth. From there, they aim to identify molecules that can be therapeutically targeted to inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells, paving the way for the development of new drugs specifically tailored to combat this rare malignancy.

“Tackling rare diseases like translocation renal cell carcinoma requires innovative approaches and collaborative efforts,” Filippakis remarked. “With the support of this generous grant from the Department of Defense, we aim to unravel the underlying genetic mechanisms driving tRCC and develop targeted therapies that could revolutionize treatment options for patients.”

“Our ultimate goal is to develop a comprehensive understanding of the molecular pathways involved in tRCC and exploit this knowledge to develop more effective therapeutic interventions,” Filippakis explained. “By exposing the genetic vulnerabilities of these tumors, we aim to provide renewed hope to children and adults battling this devastating disease.”

The grant will support Filippakis and his student researchers as they implement state-of-the-art experimental research methods that may have a significant impact on the treatment of disease in humans. It is another example of UNE’s growing commitment to providing biomedical research opportunities that have real-world implications.

In October, the University announced the formation of the Portland Laboratory for Biotechnology and Health Sciences, a collaborative effort to bolster UNE’s expertise in biotechnology and health sciences research while also creating opportunities for strategic research partnerships and contributing to workforce development in this dynamic field.

In January, UNE also announced the formation of its second Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE), the Center for Cell Signaling Research. Funded with $10.8 million from the National Institutes of Health, the center will heavily focus on studying defects in how cells communicate in the pursuit of solutions to chronic health issues impacting people living in rural settings.

Filippakis is one of four initial faculty project leaders in the Center for Cell Signaling Research. As part of the COBRE, Filippakis and his team are working on identifying therapies for another rare genetic disease called Tuberous Sclerosis Complex.

“We are immensely proud and humbled to embark on this transformative research journey with the generous support of the Department of Defense,” Filippakis remarked. “This grant highlights the importance of interdisciplinary research in addressing complex medical challenges and underscores UNE's commitment to advancing scientific knowledge for the improvement of human health.”

Information Release Disclaimer

This work was supported by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs and the Defense Health Agency J9, Research and Development Directorate, or the U.S. Army Medical Research Acquisition Activity at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, in the amount of $100,000 through the Kidney Cancer Research Program under Award No. (HT9425-24-1-0316). Opinions, interpretations, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the Department of Defense.