Health & Medicine

Tumor-Disorder Researcher Receives $3.1 Million NIH Boost

Professor Cristina Fernandez-Valle is working to find a cure for a genetic condition that affects one in 33,000 people nationwide.

By Christin Senior |
September 5, 2018

Researcher Cristina Fernandez-Valle

Professor Cristina Fernandez-Valle says there is an urgent need for alternative therapies for Neurofibromatosis type II. (Photo by Christin Senior)

UCF research into finding a cure for a disorder that causes tumors in the nervous system has received support from federal funding agencies. Cristina Fernandez-Valle, a professor of neuroscience and cancer research, recently received a five-year $3.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for her research into Neurofibromatosis type II, a genetic condition affecting one in 33,000 people nationwide.

The latest grant brings a total of $3.7 million in funds that Fernandez-Valle has received this year.

NF-2 causes benign tumors to grow in the vestibulocochlear nerve that transfers sound and balance information from the inner ear to the brain. The condition can also cause tumors to grow in the brain and spinal cord. Currently, there are no FDA-approved drug treatments for NF-2.

Patients usually undergo surgery to remove the benign tumors. But because of their delicate locations, surgery often results in permanent deafness and facial muscle paralysis. Radiation therapy is sometimes used, but can increase the likelihood of developing a malignant tumor in the future.

Citing “the urgent need for alternative therapies,” Fernandez-Valle is investigating whether existing FDA-approved cancer drugs can help NF-2 patients.

“We are testing the ability of already FDA-approved drugs to not only slow tumor growth but also help preserve hearing and balance, as a faster way to find a cure.”

“The tumors grow along the nerve that carries information from the inner ear to the brain that allow you to hear and maintain your balance as you walk,” she says. “Over time the patient gradually loses hearing and develops dizziness and balance issues. Children are typically diagnosed when they have an unexplained hearing loss.

“So we are testing the ability of already FDA-approved drugs to not only slow tumor growth but also help preserve hearing and balance, as a faster way to find a cure.”

Her team is screening cancer drugs and compounds that are currently in clinical trials that target a specific class of enzymes known to be elevated in both cancer and NF-2 patients.

“We have studied mouse cells and patient-derived tumor cells to compare the ability of the drugs to stop the cells from growing in a dish, and we’ve seen promising results. The next phase of the study is to test the drugs in animal models to determine their effectiveness in reducing tumor volume as well as preserving hearing and balance.”

Fernandez-Valle is collaborating with Christine Dinh and Xue-Zhong Liu and other scientists at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine on this project.

Earlier this year, she received an award from the Florida Department of Health and the Live Like Bella Childhood Cancer Foundation, as well a $462,000 grant from the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to examine other drug targets and animal models all in the pursuit of an effective treatment for individuals with NF-2.