Dr. Chun Liu Awarded MCW Cancer Center Pilot Funding to Improve Heart Health in Cancer Survivors

Man joggingThe MCW Cancer Center has awarded Chun Liu, PhD, Assistant Professor, Physiology, an Idea Award totaling $50,000 for his research project, Elucidating the Mechanisms of Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitor-Induced Cardiotoxicity Through Vascularized Heart Organoids. The one-year pilot award provides early funding support for high-risk, high-payoff cancer research that has the potential to lead to larger external grants; it places high importance on topics related to understanding or addressing cancer disparities. Dr. Liu’s innovative study will bring together a team of scientists, bioengineers, and clinicians to find out how certain drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) can lead to heart problems in patients with cancer, especially those in underserved communities.

“Findings from this study could lead to the development of safer cancer therapies that minimize the risk of heart damage, improving the quality of life and survival rates for patients in Wisconsin and worldwide. By identifying those at higher risk of heart problems from TKIs, doctors could tailor treatments more effectively,” said Dr. Liu.

TKIs are used to treat several common cancers, including leukemia, lung cancer, breast cancer, and gastrointestinal tumors. While these drugs are effective for fighting cancer, they can disrupt the normal interaction between the endothelial cells (EC) that line blood vessels and the heart muscle cells, called cardiomyocytes (CM). “This disruption can lead to cardiovascular issues like high blood pressure, heart failure, and other heart-related problems in patients receiving the cancer treatment,” said Dr. Liu.

Dr. Liu and his research team aim to improve their understanding of these critical EC-CM interactions by accomplishing the following:

  1. Profiling TKI-induced cardiovascular toxicity (TKI-CTX) using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived cardiovascular cells; using a cutting-edge technique called iPSCs, the team will create the cancer patients’ heart cells and tissues in the lab, then test how they react to a TKI named sunitinib.

  2. Identifying EC-CM crosstalk during TKI-CTX using iPSC-vascularized heart organoids; the team will make mini heart organs using stem cells called vascularized heart organoids (vHOs) to study how these cells talk to each other under the influence of the drug.

  3. Identifying the causal genes underlying TKI-CTX using vHOs with a focus on racial disparities; the team will use heart cells from both Black and white patients to learn if there are racial differences in how the drug affects the heart.

Dr. Liu said this research will shed light on why these heart side effects happen and how to prevent them, making cancer treatment safer and more effective for everyone. It could also stimulate the development of new, heart-safe cancer drugs and lead to studies focused on the genetic factors influencing an individual’s risk of developing treatment-related cardiovascular complications.

This research emphasizes the importance of considering the long-term health of cancer survivors. By focusing on the heart impacts of cancer treatments, we are moving towards a more holistic approach to cancer care, where treatments not only aim to cure cancer but also to maintain the overall health and quality of life for all patients,” he said.

Learn more about MCW Cancer Center pilot funding.