Foundation Grant Fuels Sylvester Researcher’s Novel Work on Myelodysplastic Syndromes

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The Edward P. Evans Foundation has awarded a three-year, $600,000 Discovery Research Grant to Justin Taylor, M.D., of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, for his research project “Discovering the role and therapeutic targeting of nuclear RNA export in myelodysplastic syndromes.”

In 2022, the foundation — named for Edward P. Evans, who died from myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) — funded 14 grant applications to researchers at well-known cancer centers nationally, based on exciting preliminary data, the strength of the investigator, and institutional commitment to finding better therapies and a possible cure for MDS.

Justin Taylor, M.D., is a member of the cancer epigenetics program at Sylvester and assistant professor of hematology at the Miller School.

“As an NCI-designated cancer center, Sylvester receives much its MDS research funding from the NIH, but it is vital that great organizations like the Edward P. Evans Foundation and donors fuel research to find badly needed new therapies for MDS patients,” said Dr. Taylor, member of the cancer epigenetics program at Sylvester and assistant professor of hematology at the Miller School.

Therapies are limited for MDS, a cancer of the bone marrow that is similar to and puts patients at high risk for acute myeloid leukemia.

“MDS can range from mild symptoms and no requirement for therapy to an aggressive, sometimes fatal cancer that requires treatment. Many refer to MDS as pre-leukemia, because 25% to 30% of patients will transform to acute myeloid leukemia,” Dr. Taylor said.

Search for New Treatment Options

A commonly used first-line MDS treatment, the chemotherapy drug azacitidine (Vidaza), works in about 50% to 60% of patients, according to Dr. Taylor.

“But even in those patients where azacitidine does work, it’s not a curative treatment. Unless the patient is able to undergo a hematopoietic stem cell transplant, which many patients cannot have due to their age or comorbidities, they’ll ultimately relapse,” he said.

There are no approved MDS treatment options after that.

Mikkael A. Sekeres, M.D., M.S., chief of hematology and physician liaison at Sylvester, has devoted 20 years of his career to studying MDS.

To find new treatment options, researchers need to better understand what drives the disease, according to Mikkael A. Sekeres, M.D., M.S., chief of hematology and physician liaison at Sylvester.

“Dr. Taylor is focusing on the mechanisms within the MDS cancer cells to determine what drives the disease and allows it to grow and resist therapy. His research is paving the way for new drug discovery to target specifically these myelodysplastic syndrome cells and eliminate them,” said Dr. Sekeres, who has devoted 20 years of his career to studying MDS. “Dr. Taylor is among an elite group of investigators who are awarded funding from the Edward P. Evans Foundation. There are very few in the world.

“We are privileged to receive this funding and are so thrilled that Dr. Taylor is being recognized for the innovative research that he is conducting in myelodysplastic syndromes,” Dr. Sekeres said.

Exploring the Nuclear Export Pathway

Dr. Taylor, who in 2020 received the Young Investigator Award from the Edward P. Evans Foundation, started his lab at Sylvester that same year. He has been studying what is called the nuclear export pathway, where MDS cancer cells take advantage of a normal cellular process.

Dr. Taylor and members of the Taylor lab study the role of recurrent mutations in hematologic malignancies and how to target these with novel therapeutics.

“My last study was how cancer cells use the nuclear export pathway or how alterations in the nuclear export pathway can be advantageous for cancer cells. We also are studying ways to target that in terms of new drugs. It does seem that cancer cells are susceptible to drugs that block the nuclear export pathway,” Dr. Taylor said.

The project funded by the foundation will look in more detail at how the nuclear export pathway could be altering the export of RNA, and whether using drugs that target nuclear export might return the RNA exporting process to normal.

“We hope that the results from this study will lead to clinical trials that we can ultimately translate from the lab to the clinic,” Dr. Taylor said.

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