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$3.8 Million in NIH Funding Bolsters UTEP’s Cancer Research

Research seeks novel therapies for specific cancers to lower their mortality rates

El PASO, Texas (Oct. 4, 2022) – Researchers at The University of Texas at El Paso’s School of Pharmacy are leading efforts to reduce mortality rates in lung, ovarian and pancreatic cancer with $3.8 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the National Cancer Institute awarded Taslim Al-Hilal, Ph.D., pictured standing with two of his students, $3.8 million for research projects related to lung, ovarian and pancreatic cancer treatment.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) awarded Taslim Al-Hilal, Ph.D., $1.5 million to test the use of blood thinning agents to improve the efficacy of cancer immunotherapy in pancreatic cancer settings, where immunotherapy does not work.  

Al-Hilal also received two grants from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), including a $1.8 million R01 grant, one of the most competitive research grants awarded by NIH, to study how a protein commonly found in male reproductive glands that was first discovered in 1999 can be targeted to treat lung cancer. He received an additional $400,000 from the NCI to continue his research into the prion-like Doppel protein as a new predictive biomarker for ovarian cancer.

“Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S.,” Al-Hilal said. “Our goal is to develop novel therapies that will help us to target specific cancers in order to lower their mortality rates.”

Marc B. Cox, Ph.D., chair of UTEP’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and professor of biological sciences, said the pharmaceutical sciences department has experienced rapid growth in federally funded research activity, with faculty securing an additional $7.2 million in new grant awards in the past academic year alone. He added that, combined with new funding from incoming faculty, UTEP’s pharmaceutical sciences team has generated more than $10 million in new research funding this year.

“This level of success in the early stages of a scientific career speaks volumes toward the quality and impact of the cancer research program developed by Dr. Al-Hilal within the School of Pharmacy at UTEP,” Cox said. “I fully anticipate that his research into a variety of cancers affecting our regional populations will have far-reaching long-term impacts on patient quality of life in the region and beyond.”

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. This highly aggressive cancer is very difficult to treat. According to Al-Hilal, nearly one-third of pancreatic cancer patients develop blood clots within the tumors that make immunotherapy ineffective. His pre-clinical research suggests that using anticoagulants that help to thin the blood, along with immunotherapy, may improve the efficacy of pancreatic cancer treatment.  

In a separate study, researchers in Al-Hilal’s lab, including postdoctoral fellows, pharmacy students and graduate students from UTEP’s environmental science and engineering program, have taken a different approach to target lung tumors. His team and collaborators have observed that the Doppel protein is responsible for the formation of new blood vessels in lung tumors and helps the tumors to survive against attacks from the body’s immune system. The team has developed an inhibitor that will block Doppel, thereby disrupting a tumor’s growth.

NCI funding also has made it possible for Al-Hilal to advance his study to use Doppel as a diagnostic biomarker of ovarian cancer in women, with a focus on the Hispanic population. He began researching Doppel as a potential biomarker in 2021 with funding from the UTEP/Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso Joint Seed Grant Program.

Ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, and the most common form of ovarian cancer arises from the outer lining (epithelium) of the ovary. This type of epithelial ovarian cancers (EOC) are difficult to detect in its early stages because symptoms can be vague and there is no effective screening test. Al-Hilal’s research suggests that Doppel is only found in the serum of women with EOC, but not women with other gynecological symptoms. Therefore, he hopes to develop a simple blood test using Doppel to detect early stage EOC.

“Ovarian cancer is the deadliest gynecological cancer,” Al-Hilal said. “One reason is that it is mostly detected at advanced stages. If someone has ovarian cancer, it will progress to advanced stages in two to three months. If we can detect the disease early, then the chances of being cured are going to be a significantly better. Our research indicates that this protein can help to detect ovarian cancer at early stages.”

To learn more about Al-Hilal’s research, visit

About The University of Texas at El Paso

The University of Texas at El Paso is America’s leading Hispanic-serving university. Located at the westernmost tip of Texas, where three states and two countries converge along the Rio Grande, 84% of our 24,000 students are Hispanic, and half are the first in their families to go to college. UTEP offers 170 bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs at the only open-access, top-tier research university in America.

Last Updated on October 04, 2022 at 12:00 AM | Originally published October 04, 2022

By MarComm UTEP Marketing and Communications