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UPMC lung cancer researcher awarded grant

| Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 9:04 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Dr. Timothy Burns stands in the Hillman Cancer Center on Friday, November 8, 2013. Dr. Burns is doing cutting edge lung cancer research. His work, tackling a cancer that kills more people than every year than breast, colon, pancreatic and prostate cancer combined has been recognized with three major grants this year.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Dr. Timothy Burns sits in his lab at the Hillman Cancer Center on Friday, November 8, 2013. Dr. Burns is doing cutting edge lung cancer research. His work, tackling a cancer that kills more people than every year than breast, colon, pancreatic and prostate cancer combined has been recognized with three major grants this year.

Dr. Timothy F. Burns has a personal and professional stake in the fight against lung cancer.

Burns, 39, a medical oncologist at UPMC Cancer Center and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, lost his father to lung cancer when he was 7. Nine years later, his mother succumbed to the disease.

“Clearly, it is something that has affected my family. And it is a great area of need,” Burns said. Lung cancer kills more people every year than breast, colon, prostate and pancreatic cancer combined, according to the American Cancer Society.

Foundations that fund cancer research have recognized his efforts in his first year as a researcher at the Hillman Cancer Center with three separate grants totaling $700,000.

The latest, a $200,000, two-year Scholar Grant from The V Foundation for Cancer Research that was announced last month, helps promising young researchers advance their work.

Burns was among 30 researchers nationwide this fall who shared about $10.8 million in awards from the foundation established by ESPN and the late Jim Valvano, a legendary North Carolina State basketball coach and ESPN commentator who died of cancer.

Experts say lung cancer researchers have made great advances in recent decades, starting with the recognition that it is not just one disease, but a number of mutations. The ability to sequence different lung cancer mutations has allowed researchers to identify effective drug therapies for some variations.

But significant hurdles remain, including KRAS mutant non-small cell lung cancer. It accounts for about 25 percent of all lung cancers and thus far has proven resistant to drug therapies.

The V Foundation recognized Burns' work targeting the KRAS mutant.

“One of the things I am studying is resistance to the therapies we have in the clinic. What makes it work, what doesn't, and ways of trying to overcome this resistance,” Burns said.

Burns received his medical degree and doctor of philosophy in cell and molecular biology from the University of Pennsylvania and did a residency and fellowship at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

As a medical doctor and a researcher, he moves back and forth between treating lung cancer patients and trying to unlock the secrets of the disease that will make for more effective treatments.

Susan Mantel, vice president of research and marketing for the Chicago-based LUNGevity Foundation, which awarded Burns a $300,000 grant this year, said KRAS lung cancer is “the biggest bucket of need,” in terms of treatment.

Mantel said Burns' work as a physician and a researcher made him especially attractive to LUNGevity.

“In terms of translational research, he is well-positioned. Tim is working on a targeted therapy and how do we combat resistance. His research is very cutting edge,” Mantel said.

Burns received a $200,000 grant from the American Lung Association this year.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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