North Carolina Central University professor Xiaoxin Luke Chen, M.D., Ph.D., has been awarded $2.7 million by the National Institutes of Health to investigate new treatment options for a type of esophageal cancer that disproportionally affects African Americans.

The award, to be distributed over five years, will support Chen’s research into the role of a molecular pathway in esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, an understudied type of cancer that resists treatment by traditional therapy.

“We are in an era of personalized medicine, but esophageal cancers are still all treated the same,” Chen said. “With this grant, we will be trying to tell whether there is a better approach for this specific subgroup of patients.”

NCCU Chancellor Johnson O. Akinleye said the funding represents the university’s commitment to research, particularly in regard to health disparities.

“Among my top priorities as chancellor has been to help the university expand the reach of its research initiatives,” Akinleye said. “This new project under Dr. Chen’s leadership will put more resources into the hands of our investigators, perhaps leading to new treatments and saving lives.”

The researchers will be examining the nuclear factor erythroid-derived 2-like 2 (NRF2) molecular signaling pathway in the esophagus, which may become hyperactivated in individuals with esophageal squamous cell carcinoma and block traditional treatments, Chen said. Once the scientists better understand how the pathway is activated, specific treatments may be formulated to target that pathway for therapy, he added.

Esophageal squamous cell carcinoma begins in cells in the upper or middle part of the esophagus, a long tube of muscle that helps move food into the stomach. Esophageal cancer is one of the 10 most common cancers in the world, affecting more than 572,000 people every year. It has a five-year survival rate of just 20%.

Risk factors for esophageal cancer include alcohol and tobacco use, as well as being age 60 or older. Men are three times more likely to develop the disease as women, while African Americans and Asians are also at higher risk for the squamous-cell type.

Chen is a professor of biological and biomedical science and conducts research at NCCU’s Julius L. Chambers Biomedical Biotechnology Research Institute. His lab explores the molecular mechanisms of oral cancer, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and esophageal cancer.

Chen will oversee the NIH study with Michael B. Major, Ph.D., a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who formerly worked at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Chen and Major have been collaborating on esophageal cancer research for 10 years with support from NIH grant mechanisms entitled “Comprehensive Partnerships to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities” (led by Dr. Ricardo Richardson at NCCU) and “Research Centers in Minority Institutions” (led by Dr. Deepak Kumar at NCCU). Others partnering in the research include scientists from NCCU (Dr. Kevin Williams at BRITE), UNC-Chapel Hill (Dr. Bernard Weissman and Dr. Scott Randell), Columbia University (Dr. Jianwen Que), and NC A&T State University (Dr. Shengmin Sang).

Chen earned his doctorate from Rutgers University in 1999 and his M.D. from Peking University in 1991. His research is also affiliated with UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Read more about NCCU’s research.