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Med School Graduate Part of NIH Research at Sanford

Image Steven Powell Steven Powell, M.D., who received his medical degree from USD Sanford School of Medicine, is part of an $11.7 million NIH-funded project at Sanford Research.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – A University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine graduate and other researchers at the Cancer Biology Research Center at Sanford Research will use a five-year, nearly $11.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to translate laboratory studies into clinical trials for head and neck and pediatric cancers.

The grant was awarded as part of the NIH’s Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence, or CoBRE, which supports activity that enhances institutional research capacity. CoBRE also awarded the Cancer Biology Research Center at Sanford Research a nearly $11.5 million grant in 2011 to develop a group of basic science and translational cancer researchers. The most recent award represents Phase II of the project.

“Our hope is that this latest NIH grant allows us to improve cancer care for this region,” said Keith Miskimins, Ph.D., who is the project’s principal investigator and director of the Cancer Biology Research Center at Sanford Research. “A grant this large positions the participating scientists well for long-term sustainability in the research world.”

Four research projects and two core laboratories highlight the grant.

The following researchers and projects will receive funding:

  • Steven Powell, M.D., who received his medical degree from USD Sanford School of Medicine, will explore if an immunotherapy drug, pembrolizumab, can help fight head and neck cancer;
  • Paola Vermeer, Ph.D., will study how immune cell interactions affect metastasis of cancer tumors and potential immunotherapy options based on biomarkers;
  • W. Chad Spanos, M.D., will look at ways to optimize the immune system’s response to head and neck cancer caused by human papilloma virus;
  • Samuel Milanovich, M.D., will study the genetic mutations that might be associated with leukemia.

Existing core laboratories led by Kristi Egland, Ph.D., and Alexi Savinov, M.D., Ph.D., will continue to support CoBRE projects. Egland’s Molecular Pathology Core will provide histology and pathology expertise, while Savinov’s Flow Cytometry Core will perform cell phenotyping and characterization and cell sorting and separation protocols. Both laboratories were established in 2011 as part of Phase I.

“Basic research is important because it leads to discoveries that might someday be translated to patients,” said David Pearce, Ph.D., executive vice president of Sanford Research. “Phase II of CoBRE marks a milestone because the findings could soon have real application to cancer patients. The strength of Sanford’s programs in head and neck cancer and pediatric cancer were a differentiator for our organization.”

The NIH, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Policy, is the nation’s medical research agency.


USD's Sanford School of Medicine is nationally known for excellence. With its award-winning curriculum, the school prepares medical students to practice in all fields of medicine and is particularly recognized and ranked for its reputation in family medicine and rural medicine. In addition to the M.D., it offers graduate degrees in basic biomedical science, sustains a vibrant and forward-looking research agenda, and is home to the interdisciplinary Center for Brain and Behavioral Research.


Founded in 1862 and the first university in the Dakotas, the University of South Dakota is the only public liberal arts university in the state, with 202 undergraduate and 84 graduate programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Education, Knudson School of Law, Sanford School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, Beacom School of Business and College of Fine Arts. With an enrollment of nearly 10,000 students and more than 400 faculty, USD has a 16:1 student/faculty ratio, and it ranks among the best in academics and affordability. USD’s 18 athletic programs compete at the NCAA Division I level.


Hanna DeLange
USD News