The UNC Nutrition Obesity Research Center (NORC) offers annual pilot and feasibility awards to support the development of innovative research in nutrition and obesity at UNC-Chapel Hill. P&F awards enable researchers to collect preliminary data that support a grant application for independent research support and published work. Two of the four 2023-2024 award recipients are NRI researchers: Ximena M. Bustamante-Marin, PhD and Blake R. Rushing, PhD.

Blake Rushing, assistant professor of Nutrition, focuses on metabolomics analysis of disease states. Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is an aggressive, hard-to-treat subtype of breast cancer that needs improved treatment strategies. Addressing cancer metabolism is an emerging and promising area of cancer therapeutics, however little is known about the metabolic features of TNBC and how they vary from patient to patient. Rushing and his team will use untargeted metabolomics, i.e., a comprehensive analysis of metabolites, to understand the metabolic diversity of TNBCs as well as the genetic/patient/tumor characteristics that drive this diversity with the long-term goal of identifying novel personalized therapeutic targets of TNBCs.

Ximena Bustamante-Marin, assistant professor of Nutrition, researches obesity and certain cancers. Obesity increases the risk of triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) and its metastasis, or spread to other tissues and organs, which is the major cause of death in women with metastatic TNBC. In obesity, both the tumor and body fat (adipose tissue) increase their secretion of extracellular vesicles (EVs), tiny sacs that contain nucleic acids, proteins, lipids, and metabolites that can influence the metabolism and function of recipient cells. Bustamante-Marin’s study will isolate EVs from the adipose and tumor tissue to investigate the impact of EVs on mitochondrial function and the expression of metastatic markers in recipient cancer cells. This research will enhance understanding of the increased risk obesity presents of developing TNBC.

Since the inception of the UNC NORC Pilot and Feasibility Program in 1999, it has awarded $2.8M to 70 investigators in 29 departments to support new and innovative research in nutrition and obesity. Based on their P&F pilot data, these awardees have received over $65M in external research support, mostly from the National Institutes of Health. Awardees have published more than 290 articles and 230 abstracts based on pilot data generated as part of their P&F projects.