Pharmacy Faculty Member Secures Large NIH Grant

Saurabh Agarwal, Ph.D. poses for a picture in the lab
March 23, 2023

Saurabh Agarwal, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, has been awarded a $492,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grant is funded under the NIH’s Research Enhancement Award Program R15.

Dr. Agarwal and his students discovered a novel cancer stem cell (CSC) subpopulation in pediatric neuroblastoma tumors, and are now developing effective therapeutic approaches to target these CSCs. The grant is one of the highest in its category, which Dr. Agarwal noted highlights the importance of this specific research.

High-risk neuroblastoma is an aggressive cancer almost always affecting very young children with a less than 50 percent overall survival rate, Dr. Agarwal explained. “Current therapies include high-dose chemotherapy and radiation, which have long-term, toxic side effects. Despite these intensive therapies, neuroblastoma commonly relapses.”

He added that the majority of deaths from high-risk neuroblastoma are due to relapsed refractory disease, caused by a drug-resistant CSC subpopulation with tumor-initiating potential. “This NIH-funded research will characterize the epigenetic mechanisms that maintain these tumor-initiating CSCs and contribute to neuroblastoma tumorigenicity and metastasis. We will also develop and preclinically test effective targeted therapeutic approaches against these tumor-initiating CSCs to limit neuroblastoma pathogenesis and relapse.”

Dr. Agarwal’s research is focused on developing effective therapeutic approaches to target those tumor cells which escape initial treatment and regenerate drug-resistant disease. He added, “These cells display high similarities to cancer stem cells and escape initial therapy to cause aggressive, drug-resistant relapsed disease.”

Neuroblastoma cancer stem cells act as seeds for relapse, Dr. Agarwal determined. “Developing direct targeting strategies against these cells can provide effective therapeutic approaches for patients.”

Dr. Agarwal joined the faculty of St. John’s University in 2018, and since his arrival has felt tremendous support from both colleagues and the administration. “I always wanted to be a teacher-researcher. That is what led me to St. John’s—tremendous support at every level to perform important research.” Mentoring undergraduate and graduate students is also an imperative for Dr. Agarwal.

“This NIH support provides an essential means to extend my discoveries in the neuroblastoma therapeutic field,” Dr. Agarwal stressed. “This grant will provide financial support for students training in my lab for advanced molecular and cell biology approaches to treat cancer. Additionally, this NIH-funded grant will help me to develop and foster collaborations to further extend my academic research and bring additional funding to St. John’s.”