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NCI Awards UCLA Researchers $2.8M to Develop Blood Test for Liver Transplant Candidate Selection

NEW YORK – A group of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center have received a $2.8 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to develop a blood test to help determine and refine the best candidates for liver transplants.

The team will use the NCI funding over the next five years to develop a tailored liquid biopsy-based assay to select and prioritize liver cancer patients who need an organ transplant.

Led by Vatche Agopian, associate professor of surgery at UCLA, and HR Tseng, professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at UCLA, the team aims to develop a method to predict how well patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) will function after a liver transplant.

"For patients with liver cancer whose tumors cannot be surgically removed due to prohibitive underlying liver dysfunction and portal hypertension, liver transplantation becomes their only option for a cure," Agopian said in a statement. "But current imaging tests do not take into account the tumor biology that actually makes some patients better candidates than others."

Agopian added that the Milan criteria, the gold-standard to decide who qualifies as a candidate for a successful liver transplant, has several limitations that the team will address as part of the study.

The group's proposed assay uses a method Tseng's team previously developed called "Click Chip" — featuring click chemistry-mediated cell capture and disulfide-cleavage cell release — to count circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in a patient's bloodstream. The researchers will use the grant to integrate prior liver cancer CTC research to develop a targeted assay that will allow them to identify cellular phenotypes and molecular characteristics of HCC CTCs, which could better define patients' tumor biology.

"We anticipate that our integrated assay will better assess the risk of tumor progression and prioritize patients to receive a transplant before tumor progression," Tseng said in a statement. "Should we confirm our assay outperforms the Milan criteria, this could be a transformative change and paradigm shift in how patients with liver cancer are selected and prioritized for liver transplantation."