Auburn's Merner receives AACP New Investigator Award for breast cancer research

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Nancy Merner joined the faculty at Auburn University's Harrison School of Pharmacy for the ability to study breast cancer in a part of the country that is both underserved and at high risk. Her efforts in this area were recently recognized as she received a New Investigator Award from the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, or AACP.

Merner's project, "Gaining Insight Towards Breast Cancer Disparities Through Gene Discovery Efforts," aims to identify the genetic mutations that explain why African Americans under the age of 40 have a higher incident rate of breast cancer, and are normally diagnosed with a more aggressive and less treatable form of breast cancer. Merner is in her second year as an assistant research professor in the school's Department of Drug Discovery and Development.

"The overall goal of this proposal is to gain insight towards how mutations in known breast cancer susceptibility genes contribute towards hereditary breast cancer in African Americans," said Merner. "The specific aim is to screen 48 breast cancer cases from the underserved and understudied Alabama population for a panel of known breast cancer susceptibility genes."

The AACP's New Investigator Award program provides start-up funding for new pharmacy faculty's research programs. Each grant is up to $10,000 to individual faculty early in their academic careers at United States colleges and schools of pharmacy that are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education and whose institution is a regular institutional member of AACP.

"AACP is a national organization that strives to advance pharmacy education, research, scholarship, practice and service, all in an effort to improve public health," said Merner. "Pharmacy faculty members are encouraged to create new knowledge and push the boundaries of discovery while following the AACP core values, including performance excellence, innovation, integrity, and inclusiveness, just to name a few.

"I am honored to be a 2016 recipient of an AACP New Investigator Award. I am very passionate about my research program; thus, this early career support and recognition is quite gratifying. The seed money provided through this award will aid in my group's seminal research efforts that will, ultimately, help decipher the factors that contribute towards breast cancer disparities in the U.S., and provide the insight that is necessary to develop more effective and personalized breast cancer therapies."

Merner's receipt of the award marks the third time in four years for an Auburn pharmacy faculty member to earn the honor. In 2013, Assistant Professor Jingjing Qian earned the award for her project, "Psychiatric Health Services Utilization and Spending among Young Medicare Enrollees." Assistant Professor Kimberly Garza won the award in 2014 for her project, "Effectiveness of Different Financial Incentives to Improve Medication Adherence."

As part of the application process, investigators work alongside a faculty mentor. For Merner, she was fortunate to work with Rusty Arnold, a fellow faculty member in the Department of Drug Discovery and Development and a former New Investigator Award winner from his time at the University of Georgia.

"Dr. Robert Arnold has been my mentor since the start of my career at Auburn. He is an exceptional colleague who runs a successfully funded research program in my department and has been very kind to offer me advice and guidance about an array of topics through my career development," said Merner. "During my grant application, Dr. Arnold provided unique grantsmanship advice that only a previous AACP award winner and grant reviewer could offer. I am very thankful for his dedication and foresight."

New participants are always welcomed to join Merner's study. She recruits individuals through the Cancer Center of East Alabama Medical Center, as well as a community-based recruitment mechanism that was specifically designed to reach out to underserved individuals. Enrollment criteria include individuals diagnosed with breast, ovarian or prostate cancer (at any age) that have a family history, or diagnosed with breast, ovarian, or prostate cancer under the age of 45 without a family history. Both cancer-affected and unaffected family members of each study participant can join the study as well. Contact Merner at (334) 844-7469 or for more information.

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