In 1991, little was known about the stomach beyond its obvious role as a low pH vessel that helped kick off the process of digestion. Gastric cancer had plummeted from the number one form of cancer in 1900 to a much less common, but still deadly disease, at least in the U.S.
Then, in 1992, the AGA–R. Robert & Sally Funderburg Research Award in Gastric Cancer was established through the AGA Research Foundation.
“To the best of my knowledge, there was not a single lab studying gastric cancer in the country at that time,” said C. Richard Boland, MD, AGAF, professor of medicine at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, and the recipient of the inaugural Funderburg award in 1992.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the award, Dr. Boland will co-moderate this year’s Funderburg Symposium, 25 Years of Gastric Cancer Research, on Sunday.
“When the Funderburg family started their research award program, it changed the course of not just gastric cancer research, but gastric research in general,” Dr. Boland said. “The Funderburg awardee list is a ‘Who’s Who’ of gastroenterology and basic gastric epithelial research. Much of what we now know about the stomach, from its developmental biology to function and dysfunction, can be traced back to a Funderburg award.”
This year’s anniversary edition of the annual symposium will feature many of the most notable awardees from the past quarter-century. Cellular and Molecular Gastroenterology and Hepatology will also feature a series of papers by past Funderburg awardees.
Juanita L. Merchant, MD, PhD, the H. Marvin Pollard professor of gastrointestinal sciences and professor of internal medicine and molecular and integrative physiology at the University of Michigan School of Medicine, Ann Arbor, will co-moderate Sunday’s session. Dr. Merchant won a Funderburg grant in 1998 to investigate Helicobacter pylori and regulation of the hormone gastrin. The award led to subsequent collaborative grants to investigate developmental pathways that are active in regulating gastric cell function and gastric cancer.
“The basic science that has been generated from those of us supported by the Funderburg award has been sustained and, in most instances, expanded,” Dr. Merchant said. “The Funderburg award has launched many careers and has allowed many of us who have continued to work in the area to continue to chip away at the underpinnings of this deadly disease. Several of the pathways we are studying are directly applicable to other cancers.”
H. pylori is widely accepted as the primary cause of gastric cancer by way of inflammatory and atrophic changes to the gastric mucosa. The dramatic decrease of H. pylori infection in the U.S. during the 20th century is credited with the decline in gastric cancer. But H. pylori and gastric cancer remain major health issues in much of Asia, Latin America and other regions. Worldwide, stomach cancer is the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second-leading cause of cancer death.
“Gastric cancer is still around in the U.S., too,” Dr. Merchant said. “There seems to be a resurgence, especially in minority and immigrant communities. But modern gastric cancers are appearing in a different part of the stomach, perhaps suggesting different conditions predisposing to the disease compared to those observed in prior decades. There is still significant work to be done.”
The Funderburg grant program continues today and is currently set at $50,000 annually for two years.
“The stomach is one of the major areas that all of us have to deal with,” Dr. Boland said. “The basic biology and development of the gastric epithelium is an inescapable part of our lives and GI practice. Even hematologists have to pay attention to the stomach. Gastric research and the Funderburg award are not tangential issues for any of us — they are central to gastroenterology.”
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