Zhang Awarded $3.5 Million in NIH Grants to Develop Cancer Therapy

Due to Begin Phase I Clinical Trials in 1-2 Years

Shaun Xiaoliu Zhang, M.D. Anderson Professor of Biology and Biochemistry in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Houston, was recently awarded two R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health, worth a combined $3.5 million. Each grant offers five years of funding to support his research on developing a novel cancer therapeutic agent, called FusOn-H2, which is scheduled to enter Phase I clinical trials within the next 1-2 years.

Shaun Xiaoliu Zhang
Shaun Zhang was awarded $3.5 million in NIH funding to support his research on a new cancer therapy that is scheduled to begin Phase I clinical trials in the next 1-2 years.
“In our preclinical studies, we have demonstrated FusOn-H2 to be safe and effective against a range of different tumors, including pancreatic, breast, prostate, lung and liver cancers,” Zhang said. “For clinical trials, we will initially focus on pancreatic cancer patients. Given that the prognosis for these patients is very bad, there is a pressing need for new treatments.”

FusOn-H2, which represents a new type of cancer therapy called oncolytic virotherapy, was developed and characterized by Zhang’s lab in UH’s Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the first oncolytic virotherapy treatment for patients with melanoma.

Oncolytic virotherapy, which promises an alternative to radiation, chemotherapy or surgery, is a combination of two new classes of treatments called virotherapy and immunotherapy. Virotherapy means adapting a virus to selectively kill cancer cells while immunotherapy means stimulating the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer cells. FusOn-H2 works in both of these ways. It destroys tumor cells in mass, which then leads to the release of tumor antigens that will stimulate the body’s immune system to join the fight to eliminate the remaining malignant cells.

Zhang’s research focuses on developing FusOn-H2 for clinical translation. This means modifying FusOn-H2 so that it can reach cancer cells and determining possible combinations of drugs to accompany FusOn-H2.

“Drug resistance is a major problem for cancer treatment. A treatment will work against a tumor for a while, only for that tumor to develop resistance to the drug’s effects,” Zhang said. “The virotherapy and immunotherapy combo developed by our lab hopefully has the potential to provide a long-lasting therapeutic benefit to cancer patients.” His lab is working on identifying drugs such as the check-point blockers to further enhance the persistent antitumor benefit.

Once FusOn-H2 is ready for Phase I trials, Zhang plans to collaborate with clinical physicians at Baylor College of Medicine for its clinical translation.

Zhang’s research is also supported by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas and the William and Ella Owens Medical Research Foundation. Together, these grants bring the total funding to the $5million mark.

- Rachel Fairbank, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics