Jumpstart Program

As a basic science cancer center, a goal of the Cancer Center at Illinois (CCIL) is to build bridges between related disciplines and leverage their fundamental advances to benefit cancer. Many of the University of Illinois’ faculty may be interested but may not have had the opportunity or training to contribute to cancer research significantly. The JumpStart program is for established investigators (at the level of Associate Professor or above), who are NOT yet members of the CCIL, to engage in collaborative research with CCIL members to accelerate our progress against cancer.

Selected participants will be high-caliber scientists who have demonstrated expertise in a related field and have the potential to develop a viable plan to contribute to the center’s strategic themes and interact with its members.

Faculty selected for this program will be appointed as associate members, with the expectation that they will become full members as their publication and grant activities progress. The CCIL will provide up to $25,000 in JumpStart program funds.

The CCIL provides access to a large pool of member collaborators who can help guide the applicant to establish a cancer research career. CCIL staff will help connect program participants to members in specific areas and prospective applicants can also sign up for information on program meetings and other center events.

The 2022 application cycle has ended, and this funding opportunity is now closed. For more information, contact us at cancercenter@illinois.edu.

2022-2023 JumpStart Cohort Members

Wenyan Mei
Wenyan Mei - JumpStart Project

Read the feature story on Wenyan Mei which details her experience as a JumpStart Program member.

In this academic year, I plan to develop two zebrafish models for anti-cancer drug screen and intestinal organoid culture systems for the tumor microenvironment study. The first zebrafish model is the Tg(fli1;EGFP) transgenic zebrafish line whose larvae express EGFP in all blood vessels and thus can be used for screening drugs that target angiogenesis. The second zebrafish model is zebrafish xenografts in which fluorescently labeled human cancer cells are xenografted into the zebrafish larvae for studying the effect of anticancer drugs. Both models are time and cost efficient as compared to the traditional animal models for cancer research.

Moreover, the optical clarity of zebrafish embryos enables real-time visualization of the anticancer effect under a fluorescence microscope. In addition, we will develop a 2D colonoid monolayer culture system by using colon crypts freshly isolated from mice to study the tumor microenvironment. Compared to the cancer cell lines, the colonoid monolayer culture system retains the properties of the in vivo colonocytes such as heterogeneity in cell composition and cell polarity and thus can better replicate the physiological conditions. By coculturing the 2D intestinal monolayer cells with immune cells, we will be able to study the bidirectional interactions between the intestinal epithelial cells and the immune system that are important for intestinal tumorigenesis.

We are particularly interested in using the colonoid monolayer system to study the impact of immune cells have on the regenerative capacity of intestinal stem cells, which is important for understanding the cancer stem cell biology.

Ruby Mendenhall
Ruby Mendenhall - JumpStart Project Abstract

Rohit Bhargava states in his Director’s Message, that diverse research teams and scientific methods are required to “progress against this complex mystery” that is cancer. Race, class and gender play an important role in cancer outcomes as Black women’s death rates from the disease are 40% higher than white women (Breast Cancer Research Foundation 2021). The Quest study seeks to unravel aspects of the “mystery” of cancer prevention and healing by working with community members, community health workers (CHWs), community partners, citizen/community scientists, research scientists and those with lived experiences with the disease.

The Quest study will use a holistic approach to examine the impact of wellness factors on prevention, detection and healing: body, mind, emotions, work, spirit, finances, community and environmental. For example, 20 Black women diagnosed with breast cancer in their teen years to age 45 will be interviewed about how the disease affected their mental health, fertility, body image and overall identity as Black women. We will also unravel the key people, places and healing rituals that they believe allowed them to survive their cancer journey. To further foster healing, the women will be invited to participate in the second installation of a four-week Taking Grief by the Hand to Heal circle (led by Shandra Summerville and Ruby Mendenhall). During and after the grief circle, the women will work with researchers, CHWs and the Poket organization (Kamil Shariq) to geographically map how their communities support aspects of their wellness such as grocery stores and healthy restaurants, places to socialize with others and comedy clubs (laughter as medicine). 

The Quest study will also co-produce books such as cartoons to help children deal with the stress of treatment (Natalia Johns-University Nevada Medical Student), recipe books that provide education about the power of proper nutrition (food as medicine), and a photobook about the beauty and resilience of Black women who experienced cancer. Lastly, we hope to innovate with community youth, our future cancer workforce, around current technology that can be used in the home to detect and diagnose cancer. We will develop these products with the Siebel Center for Design (Rachel Switzky) in our Wellness Store.  

Jonathan Sweedler
Jonathan Sweedler - JumpStart Project Abstract

The Sweedler group has created a unique ability to probe individual cells for their major metabolites and lipids in a high throughput manner. We have created the approaches and used it to explore brain and endocrine cells. With the JumpStart Award from the CCIL we are adapting this technology and exploring its use for cancer cells. Shown below is our first (unpublished) efforts to characterize and differentiate GFP-labeled medulloblastoma tumor cells in a collaboration with Timothy R. Gershon, a Professor of Neurology at UNC Chapel Hill

Medulloblastoma is the most common malignant brain tumor in children and its intertumoral heterogeneity hinders the development of targeted therapies that will be effective against the entire tumor. Single-cell heterogeneity present within the tumor also poses a challenge to sampling because bulk tissue measurements mask chemical differences between cells. Here the medulloblastoma tumor cells are dissociated into its individual cells deposited onto a slide, and we perform high-throughput matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization mass spectrometry (MALDI MS) for chemical differentiation of GFP-labeled medulloblastoma tumor cells.

sweedler graphic

Because an entire tumor is not purely tumor cells, the GFP label allows the comparison of both normal cells and different tumor cell types. Understanding the breadth of chemical heterogeneity present within medulloblastoma tumors aids in the development of targeted therapies that are effective across the entire tumor.

We (the Sweedler group) are also exploring several other new and potential efforts related to cancer. We are running samples for Erik Nelson’s group (and are listed on a student abstract being presented at the 2022 American Institute for Cancer Research Conference), were listed on several proposals submitted to the CCIL to initiate new collaborations from Mei Shen and Joaquín Rodríguez López, with the later involving additional single cell characterizing efforts.