Tom Cunningham image

Tom Cunningham, assistant professor of cancer biology.

A University of Cincinnati researcher has been awarded nearly $4 million in federal funding for cancer research.

Tom Cunningham, assistant professor of cancer biology in the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, received two grants from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the National Cancer Institute to continue his research. This research is focused on how altered activity of a key enzyme in the metabolism of cells contributes to developmental disorders and cancer.

The grants are split into direct and indirect funds. Direct funds cover the lab, research and salaries while indirect funds cover basic infrastructure and staff (veterinarians, administration and bureaucracies) that manage the grant for compliance.

Cunningham received his bachelor’s degree from Western Kentucky University and his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. He began his position at UC in 2016. His role primarily consists of research focusing on enzymes and two varieties of cells.  He additionally teaches graduate students.

Cunningham’s lab has discovered how the enzyme phosphoribosyl pyrophosphate synthetase (PRPS) is pivotal to the metabolic process in cells. This enzyme is expressed in two protein variants: PRPS1 and PRPS2. Humans with various developmental disorders have been found to have mutations in the PRPS1 gene, and no mutations have ever been in PRPS2.

The role of PRPS2 in development remains unknown. PRPS1 is essential during normal development and PRPS2 is not. PRPS2 can be overproduced by cancer cells and is part of tumor formation.

The two grants help Cunningham and his lab research these two genes, their roles in development and how cancer works in the enzyme to produce tumors.

“Understanding the mechanisms of why that happens is what we are poised to understand,” Cunningham said. “What may come from this is just fundamental knowledge, but by studying PRPS1 we can learn a lot more about other diseases as well.”

Cunningham’s research just scratches the surface of understanding enzymes, the biochemistry of the cell and how it works on a larger scale.

“Luckily, we are in a time in science where we can blend one discipline with another and apply it to an entirely different system,” Cunningham said. “We are using novel tools to uncover new mysteries. Some of it is just pursuit of more understanding that will ultimately lead to better tools.”

Cunningham said he hopes his research will provide further knowledge on how to develop better therapies as well as how to both understand and develop new strategies and treat various cancers.

Features Editor

David Rees, features editor, has been with The News Record since Sept. 2018 and previously served as chief reporter. Rees enjoys covering student government, sustainability and LGBTQ activism.