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Release: June 27, 2002

UI cancer researcher receives long-term funding from National Cancer Institute

Mary Hendrix, Ph.D., the Kate Daum Research Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the University of Iowa and head of the department, has received a MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) award from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The grant provides $250,000 (direct costs) each year for five years and is then eligible for extension for up to an additional five years at the full funding amount. The award will support ongoing research in Hendrix's lab aimed at understanding plasticity of certain invasive tumor cells.

A MERIT award is designed to provide long-term funding to researchers who have demonstrated outstanding productivity in their previous research efforts. The award recognizes a research record of excellence and consistency, and its sustained funding allows recipients to pursue research aimed at answering important and complex scientific questions.

Hendrix, who also is deputy director of the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center at the UI, and her colleagues have discovered that aggressive skin cancer (melanoma) tumor cells display a stem cell-like flexibility that allows them to respond to cellular cues and take on new cellular forms and functions. In particular, the UI studies have shown that aggressive tumor cells can alter their molecular and genetic hallmarks and transform into cells that look and act like blood vessel cells. The team demonstrated that, in blood-deprived living tissue, these aggressive tumor cells actually participated in forming new blood vessels. The UI team also has demonstrated that aggressive melanoma cells can alter their extracellular environment and cause other less aggressive melanoma cells to act more aggressively.

These studies and the work that will be funded by the NCI MERIT award may have important implications for the diagnosis and treatment of melanoma, as well as other types of aggressive cancers. The work will identify new markers to improve diagnosis of aggressive tumor cells and could suggest new therapeutic targets to control metastasis and tumor growth.

Understanding the stem cell-like capabilities of these cancer cells also may have implications for wound healing and for treating conditions caused by abnormal blood vessel formation.

The Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center at the UI is Iowa's only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center. NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers are recognized as the leaders in developing new approaches to cancer prevention and cancer care conducting leading edge research and educating the public about cancer. Visit the center online at

The UI currently has four other investigators with MERIT awards: Michael Apicella, M.D., professor and head of microbiology, Gerald Gebhart, Ph.D., professor and head of pharmacology, Ronald Lauer, M.D., professor of pediatrics and public health, and Michael Welsh, M.D., the Roy J. Carver Chair in Internal Medicine and Physiology and Biophysics, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership between the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and UI Hospitals and Clinics and the patient care, medical education and research programs and services they provide. Visit UI Health Care online at