News Release

Four MUSC Hollings Cancer Center researchers awarded American Cancer Society grants

Grant and Award Announcement

Medical University of South Carolina

Four MUSC Hollings Cancer Center researchers received American Cancer Society Institutional Research Grants worth $35,000 each. The grants are awarded to researchers investigating promising projects that will push cancer care forward.

Caitlin Allen, Ph.D.

Hollings researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences

“KEEP IT (Keeping Each Other Engaged via IT): An Innovative Digital Literacy Training Program for Community Health Workers about Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer among Black Women”

Allen’s goal is to develop and launch a new training program for community health workers called Keeping Each other Engaged Program via IT (KEEP IT). KEEP IT is an innovative training for community health workers designed to build their competencies in using health IT tools to facilitate the identification of, screening for and access to genetic services for Black women who are at increased risk for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Previous studies show that Black women are much more likely to have the BRCA 1 or 2 mutation, making them 10 times more likely to develop breast or ovarian cancers. Despite the increased risk, this population often presents with disease at a more advanced state. 

“Our hope is that this training program moves us closer to addressing cancer inequities and contributes toward the growing efforts in reducing disparities in access to precision medicine,” Allen said. “As the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in the state, Hollings has a responsibility to reduce the burden of cancer on all South Carolinians, no matter where they may live.”

Leonardo Ferreira, Ph.D.

Hollings researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology

“Repurposing Regulatory T-Cells for Cancer Control Using Chimeric Antigen Receptors”

Ferreira was awarded the grant for his work studying the role that the immune system plays in cancer development and progression. Ferreira’s project is focused on determining how the immune system identifies normal cells versus cancerous cells. His work looks at Tregs, which are regulatory T-cells that suppress immune responses. Tregs accumulate in tumor cells, warding off attack from the immune system. Ferreira hopes to develop more effective treatments that circumvent Tregs to allow the immune system to attack the cancer.

“It is really special that after a decade of studying how to build immune tolerance, my fresh perspective is being recognized as useful to break immune tolerance in cancer,” Ferreira said. “The next frontier in cancer immune cell therapy is treating solid tumors, and this grant will allow me to tackle it from a new angle that I hope will bear fruit.”

Natalie Saini, Ph.D.

Hollings researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

“Understanding the Role of Persistent Inflammation in Driving Carcinogenesis”

Saini was recognized for her work studying systemic sclerosis, an immune-mediated multisystem disorder that causes widespread inflammation. Previous studies show patients with the disorder are at an increased risk of cancer development, but little is known about why that is the case. Saini’s study looks at human lung cells to compare healthy cells versus cancerous cells, with the hope of developing earlier ways to diagnose and treat lung cancer.

“This award will enable us to investigate the causes underlying DNA damage, mutagenesis and ultimately carcinogenesis in patients with systemic sclerosis,” Saini said. “This study will lay the foundation for developing precision diagnostics for patients with inflammatory diseases to determine their predisposition to cancer.”

Tracy Smith, Ph.D.

Hollings researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

“E-cigarettes as Harm Reduction Tools in Smokers who Fail to Quit with Traditional Methods”

The goal of Smith’s research is to understand whether current smokers who have failed to quit smoking with traditional methods would benefit from trying to switch completely to a less harmful product, like e-cigarettes. The proposed study will be one of the first trials in the United States to compare e-cigarettes directly to FDA-approved pharmacotherapy for smoking cessation. Smith hopes to show that e-cigarettes can provide a steppingstone for smokers on the pathway to quit altogether. 

“I’m excited about pursuing this new line of work,” Smith said. “This project will provide novel information about how e-cigarettes compare to traditional FDA-approved pharmacotherapy for smoking cessation. If we can improve our smoking cessation efforts, more lives can be saved.”


About MUSC

Founded in 1824 in Charleston, MUSC is the oldest medical school in the South as well as the state's only integrated academic health sciences center with a unique charge to serve the state through education, research and patient care. Each year, MUSC educates and trains more than 3,000 students and nearly 800 residents in six colleges: Dental Medicine, Graduate Studies, Health Professions, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy. The state's leader in obtaining biomedical research funds, in fiscal year 2019, MUSC set a new high, bringing in more than $284 million. For information on academic programs, visit

As the clinical health system of the Medical University of South Carolina, MUSC Health is dedicated to delivering the highest quality patient care available while training generations of competent, compassionate health care providers to serve the people of South Carolina and beyond. Comprising some 1,600 beds, more than 100 outreach sites, the MUSC College of Medicine, the physicians' practice plan and nearly 275 telehealth locations, MUSC Health owns and operates eight hospitals situated in Charleston, Chester, Florence, Lancaster and Marion counties. In 2020, for the sixth consecutive year, U.S. News & World Report named MUSC Health the No. 1 hospital in South Carolina. To learn more about clinical patient services, visit

MUSC and its affiliates have collective annual budgets of $3.2 billion. The more than 17,000 MUSC team members include world-class faculty, physicians, specialty providers and scientists who deliver groundbreaking education, research, technology and patient care

About MUSC Hollings Cancer Center

MUSC Hollings Cancer Center is a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center and the largest academic-based cancer research program in South Carolina. The cancer center comprises more than 100 faculty cancer scientists and 20 academic departments. It has an annual research funding portfolio of more than $44 million and a dedication to reducing the cancer burden in South Carolina. Hollings offers state-of-the-art diagnostic capabilities, therapies and surgical techniques within multidisciplinary clinics that include surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation therapists, radiologists, pathologists, psychologists and other specialists equipped for the full range of cancer care, including more than 200 clinical trials. For more information, visit

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