University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill professor Stephen Hursting has received a prestigious National Cancer Institute (NCI) Outstanding Investigator Award (OIA), which provides stable funding for cancer research with breakthrough potential. Dr. Hursting, a professor in UNC’s Department of Nutrition, Nutrition Research Institute and Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, is one of 43 researchers nationwide to receive an OIA. The grant will provide Hursting with $5.34 million over a seven-year period to further his research on the mechanistic links between obesity and cancer.

Hursting, who received his PhD and MPH degrees in Nutrition at UNC in 1992, returned to North Carolina in 2014 after serving as Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin from 2005-14. He previously held positions at the National Cancer Institute and the UT-MD Anderson Cancer Center, and has been involved in various aspects of nutrition and cancer research for his entire 25-year career.

Head shot of Dr. Stephen Hursting.The NCI OIA, a new type of grant bestowed on experienced and highly productive cancer researchers to provide long-term support for their exceptional work, will allow Hursting the freedom to take more risks in his lines of inquiry as well as more time to mentor junior investigators and develop the next generation of researchers in the increasingly important area of nutrition and cancer prevention.

“The NCI Outstanding Investigator Award addresses a problem that many cancer researchers experience: finding a balance between focusing on their science while ensuring that they will have funds to continue their research in the future,” said Dinah Singer, PhD, director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Biology. “With seven years of uninterrupted funding, NCI is providing outstanding investigators the opportunity to fully develop exceptional and ambitious cancer research programs.”

Hursting said, “I am honored by, and very grateful for, this award. Given the strong links between obesity and many cancers, the rising rates of obesity and cancer worldwide, and the challenges for many people to lose excess weight, there is an urgent need to better understand how obesity impacts the cancer process, and to find new ways to lessen that impact. This award will provide my group at UNC with unprecedented flexibility to pursue innovative research to identify and validate key molecular and metabolic targets and test new, effective mechanism-based interventions to reduce the obesity-associated cancer burden.”

Hursting’s proposed studies address four major gaps in the quest to break the obesity-cancer link: 1) Does moderate weight loss alone, or in combination with other mechanism-based interventions (including anti-inflammatory agents), reverse the procancer effects of obesity? 2) What are the mechanisms of (and solutions to) obesity-induced chemotherapeutic resistance? 3) What are the targets and strategies for offsetting the pro-metastatic effects of obesity? 4) What new targets for offsetting the effects of obesity can be identified by deconvoluting (and ultimately disrupting) the reciprocal crosstalk between adipocytes, macrophages and epithelial cells?