UT Health San Antonio Pediatric Oncologist Gregory Aune.
UT Health San Antonio was approved to participate in the trial in early March and began enrolling patients on March 26 through a partnership with University Hospital. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awarded UT Health San Antonio more than $2.7 million to fund projects aimed at smoking cessation, increasing HPV vaccination rates, and developing new drugs to treat leukemia.

A $1.3 million grant announced Aug. 24 will expand Quitxt, a bilingual messaging service that provides motivational texts and links to online support to smokers looking to quit at no cost. The program, which started in 2015, reportedly helped 20 percent of participants quit smoking, said Dr. Amelie Ramirez, study leader and director of Salud America!, the Latino-focused health education advocacy program at UT Health San Antonio.

“Smoking still continues to be our No. 1 health problem. It shortens an individual’s life, and it is also very costly if these individuals are diagnosed with lung cancer,” Ramirez said. “We realize that people have a difficult time quitting, and we want to be there to offer them help.”

The Quitxt messaging service adapted parts of federal smoking cessation programs and built a messaging system with content to fit the culture and language of Latino adults age 18 and older who use tobacco products. The funding will help expand the program from South Texas to include rural counties and urban areas of South, West, and Central Texas.

“We are hoping this [expansion] will help us continue to refine our message so that it will be more effective,” Ramirez said, adding that the program will also expand to include more information about nicotine replacement therapy and other local and national support systems.

People who receive primary care through the UT Health Physicians medical practice or oncology care through the UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center, are directed toward the program if they indicate that they use tobacco products. Otherwise, people interested in the program can text “iquit,” or “lodejo,” to 57682 to receive the interactive support in either English or Spanish.

The CPRIT grant also provides $1 million for a brand-new project that will expand human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination coverage to 113 counties throughout South Texas. Led by Dr. Allison Grimes, pediatric oncologist with UT Health San Antonio, the program will focus on completing vaccination cycles for people under the age of 26 and educating childhood cancer survivors about the risk of developing a second cancer.

“Bexar County has the lowest HPV vaccination uptick count in the entire state, which is particularly concerning because we have a large young population, with 40 percent of the population in the area under age 25,” Grimes said. “We knew at this point we needed to do something more.”

The program will also educate survivors of childhood cancer who are at greater risk for developing a second cancer, which Grimes said was lacking in the Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program. Less than 5 percent of childhood cancer survivors in the area have completed the HPV vaccine series, she said, noting that females who have had cancer of the cervix, vulva, or vagina are at a 40 percent greater risk for developing cancer again, while men who have had genital cancers have a 150 percent greater risk.

HPV contributes to 33,700 new cancers in the U.S. every year, yet only 43 percent of young females and 32 percent of young males are completing the vaccine series, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We hope that by targeting the most vulnerable populations at greatest risk we will have the most significant impact,” Grimes said.

The remaining $400,000 of the CPRIT grant funding will go toward two research studies examining BCR-ABL protein, which can increase genomic mutations and the risk of cancers including leukemia.

One study will use a new class of drugs developed in the laboratory of Dr. Edward Hasty, professor of molecular medicine at UT Health San Antonio. A separate project, led by Hai Rao, associate professor of molecular medicine, seeks to develop small molecules that would rapidly destroy BCR-ABL proteins.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.