Flinn Foundation grants push research on cancer, surgery, diabetes into clinical practice

December 12, 2019

By Matt Ellsworth

By Brian Powell
Flinn Foundation

Arizona’s leading research institutions—universities, independent institutes, and research hospitals—are collaborating on bioscience projects to advance health care through a Flinn Foundation grants program designed to translate innovations and discoveries into patient care more quickly.

The eight grants, valued at $100,000 each, will fund research between basic and clinical researchers at Arizona’s three public universities, HonorHealth Research Institute, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center and Barrow Neurological Institute, and the Translational Genomics Research Institute, as well as external partners that range from Mayo Clinic Arizona to Microsoft to Los Alamos National Laboratory.

This is the fifth round of the Flinn Foundation’s Seed Grants to Promote Translational Research initiative, which enables organizations to ultimately better compete for larger grants from funders like the National Institutes of Health or build partnerships to facilitate commercialization. Since 2013, the Flinn Foundation has awarded 31 seed grants totaling $4.2 million.

“These grants allow for Arizona’s leading institutions to collaborate on research with high potential to improve treatments and lead to creation of new bioscience firms through the commercialization of their cutting-edge technology,” said Mary O’Reilly, Ph.D., Flinn Foundation vice president, bioscience research programs.

Seed Grants Summaries

The eight 2019 seed grants were awarded for the following projects:

St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center / Barrow Neurological Institute, in partnership with Vanderbilt University and Philips Healthcare: Establishing a real-time analysis plug-in for clinical perfusion imaging

The project is developing a critical new option for brain-tumor patient management that would remove the need for surgical biopsy to confirm therapeutic response—a standard-of-care approach that increases cost and morbidity. The project hopes to establish an automated and real-time acquisition and analysis pipeline that enables true clinical translation of a perfusion-imaging protocol.

HonorHealth Research Institute, in partnership with University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix and Microsoft: Development of a virtual-reality platform to enhance patient health literacy and clinical-trials informed consent.

The project proposes a first-of-its-kind digital tool exploiting augmented-reality and virtual-reality environments, combined with novel algorithms, to allow for deeper patient engagement. The goal would be to improve health literacy for patients to make better decisions, including improving the ability to comprehend benefits, risks, and alternatives to the procedure or therapy considered. The tool would also benefit cancer patients searching for potentially life-prolonging clinical trials.

Arizona State University, in partnership with Mayo Clinic Arizona: Designing biomimetic fibrous scaffolds with spatially controlled mineralization for augmenting rotator-cuff repair

The project’s goal is to develop innovate tissue-engineered therapeutics for rotator-cuff repair. Rotator-cuff tears are common and re-tear rates can be as high as 90 percent. The project will develop new gradient materials that can mimic the natural gradients in the tendon-to-bone interfacial tissue and serve as a template for controlling tissue repair. The goal is for the new materials to have applications outside this project, including anterior cruciate ligament, meniscus, and other fibrous tissues.

Translational Genomics Research Institute, in partnership with Mayo Clinic Arizona: Optimizing treatment of metastatic breast cancer through real-time disease monitoring

The project hopes to address the gap in monitoring response to treatment in patients with metastatic breast cancer, an incurable disease. Imaging is used to monitor the disease in the standard-of-care treatment, which can only be repeated at two-month intervals, leaving patients potentially exposed to ineffective therapy and delaying revised treatment plans. This proposal will use circulating tumor DNA analysis to bridge the two-month gap.

Northern Arizona University, in partnership with TGen and Los Alamos National Laboratory: Pre-clinical testing of mathematical model prediction of RAF inhibitor effects in humanized zebrafish

The emphasis for this project is treatment of melanoma, the most lethal type of skin cancer, with the hope of using the treatment approach on numerous kinase-driven cancers. Various targeted therapies have been successful for some patients with melanoma, while the same treatments given to other patients have failed. The goal is to leverage a computational pipeline that predicts therapeutic responses to novel combinations of FDA-approved drugs in cancer cell lines and in humanized zebrafish harboring melanoma skin cancer.

TGen, in partnership with Mayo Clinic Arizona: An innovative application for diabetes personalized care

The project aims to improve life-long patient compliance with insulin site rotation for patients with Type 1 diabetes and some patients with Type 2 diabetes. The plan is to develop an application for iOS and Android mobile platforms that employs a novel algorithm to better guide insulin site rotation, which reduces the risk of lipohypertrophy, infection, flare, skin injury, scarring, and irritation.

St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center / Barrow Neurological Institute: A novel multipurpose surgical instrument with retraction force sensing

The project will combine some of the most frequently used surgical instruments into a single instrument that can perform multiple functions, including the measurement of applied force. This will reduce the surgeon’s need to change hand-held instruments, which increases operative time and patient risk. It will also help the surgeon avoid excessive or prolonged forces on sensitive nerve tissues during surgery.

University of Arizona Department of Biomedical Engineering: A soft, battery-free, wireless, and wearable digital-health platform for continuous frailty assessment

The project will enable providers to monitor health status and diagnose, manage, and treat patients in and outside the clinic. The proposed device, which could be worn for weeks at a time by relying on wireless energy sources, will be tested on older patients who are frail. The flexible device will serve as an alternative to the current hardware for wireless data collection.

The Flinn Foundation and Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap

Past research projects funded by Flinn Foundation seed grants have focused on brain injuries, ALS, melanoma, colorectal cancer, asthma, Barrett’s Esophagus, and other areas of clinical importance.

Beyond the translational-research seed grants initiative, the Foundation provides grants to Arizona universities, institutions, and health systems to advance bioscience research and funds a Bioscience Entrepreneurship Program for emerging biotech startups. The six participants in the 2020 program, which will each receive $30,000, personal mentorship, and other benefits, will be announced in February.

Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, launched as a long-term strategic plan in 2002 by the Flinn Foundation, continues to guide the advancement of the bioscience sector in the state. The Roadmap is overseen by Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap Steering Committee, which includes about 100 Arizona leaders from the public and private sectors in science, health care, business, academia, and policy.

The Flinn Foundation was established in 1965 by Dr. Robert S. and Irene P. Flinn to improve the quality of life in Arizona to benefit future generations. In addition to advancing the biosciences, the Foundation supports the Flinn Scholars Program, a merit-based college scholarship program, arts and culture, and the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership.

Learn more: Flinn Foundation Active Grants