NETRF-Funded Research Leads to Department of Defense Rare Cancers Research Program Grants

Christopher Heaphy, PhD, a cancer biologist and Assistant Professor of Medicine and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center, studies telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of our chromosomes. Dr. Heaphy previously discovered that telomeres are altered in pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (pNETs) with DAXX or ATRX mutations in a process called alternative lengthening of telomeres (ALT). Further, Dr. Heaphy found that the ALT status of a pNET is a prognostic marker of disease progression and could one day be used to identify patients who would benefit from an ALT-specific therapy.

Dr. Heaphy’s research has been supported through two NETRF grants that build upon these earlier discoveries: a 2016 collaborative grant from NETRF and the North American Neuroendocrine Tumor Society (NANETS) and a 2022 NETRF Pilot Award.

Dr. Heaphy’s 2022 NETRF Pilot Award, “Spatial transcriptomic profiling of the PanNET tumor microenvironment,” will learn more about the pancreatic NET microenvironment, the ecosystem surrounding the tumor, including the immune and stromal cell populations. Spatial transcriptomics is a newer technology that will allow him and his collaborator, Ruben Dries, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, to understand where cells are located spatially within a tissue sample and start to piece together interactions within the tumor microenvironment.

Because of these foundational studies, Dr. Heaphy recently secured additional funding for pNET research and, along with his collaborators, received two Department of Defense Rare Cancers Research Program grants to continue to explore the pNET tumor microenvironment and the underlying molecular mechanisms unique to the ALT pathway that may be exploited as a therapeutic target.

“With our collaborators across different disciplines, we envision the incorporation of spatial and morphological information at the highest resolution with innovative experimental and computational approaches will uncover novel insights into pancreatic NET biology and help identify potential novel druggable targets,” said Dr. Heaphy.