In 2016, Emina Huang, MD, received funding from two Cleveland Clinic philanthropic initiatives, the Research Centers of Excellence program and VeloSano, the “Bike to cure” fundraiser for cancer research.

This funding allowed Dr. Huang to establish the Center of Excellence in Colon Cancer Metastasis Research at Cleveland Clinic, which she co-directs with Xiaoxia Li, PhD. It also supported preliminary research that led to a multimillion-dollar grant, awarded in 2017 by the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

“The seed funding from these programs is essential to advance early stage research that leads to new discoveries and attracts large, external grants,” Dr. Huang says.

Less than a year later, her research team has harnessed the NCI support into new discoveries that will enhance the understanding of colorectal cancer.

In a paper published in June 2018 in Oncotarget, Dr. Huang and her collaborators describe how they developed a special disease model, called an organotypic model, of ulcerative colitis (UC), an inflammatory bowel condition that can lead to colorectal cancer. Organotypic models such as organoids are groups of human cells engineered in the laboratory to mimic the biological qualities of the larger organ on a much smaller scale.

In this case, team members created a “mini-colon” from cells that were removed from the biopsied colons of healthy patients and those with UC. Their research showed that the structural and cellular elements of the organoid matched those observed in patient colons and that the gene expression pattern of the UC organoid differed from the healthy organoid, namely among genes related to inflammation, metabolism, cell adhesion and cancer.

The researchers validated their model and demonstrated that it can reliably be used to study processes related to UC and colorectal cancer. They also identified new genes suspected to be involved in the disease process.

Dr. Huang is hopeful that continued funding will offer the potential to improve future therapies. “Ultimately,” she says, “this work offers new targets for therapeutic intervention, and brings us closer to delivering precision medicine for patients with UC and colorectal cancer.”