Eighteen scientists receive Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation awards

Grants totaling $2.8M give early career investigators independence to pursue novel ideas

The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on supporting innovative early career researchers, named 18 new Damon Runyon Fellows at its spring Fellowship Award Committee review. The recipients of this prestigious, three-year award are outstanding postdoctoral scientists conducting basic and translational cancer research in the laboratories of leading senior investigators across the country. The Fellowship encourages the nation's most promising young scientists to pursue careers in cancer research by providing them with independent funding ($156,000 each) to work on innovative projects.

May 2011 Damon Runyon Fellows:

Pedro J. Batista, PhD [Kenneth G. and Elaine A. Langone Fellow] with his sponsor Howard Y. Chang, MD, PhD, at Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California, is investigating the molecular mechanism by which long noncoding RNAs regulate gene expression. Long noncoding RNAs form a vital link between the information encoded in the genome and the instructions recorded at the structural chromatin level, thus maintaining cell identity. Understanding how long noncoding RNAs regulate gene expression will allow the development of powerful tools for diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

David K. Breslow, PhD [Connie and Bob Lurie Fellow] with his sponsor Maxence V. Nachury, PhD, at Stanford University, Stanford, California, is studying the primary cilium, a cellular structure that enables cells to sense and respond to specific external cues. While disruptions to primary cilia are known to promote tumor formation and cause developmental defects, how cilia orchestrate these processes remains poorly understood. He is using a combination of genetic, biochemical and imaging approaches to investigate how lipid molecules contribute to the unique functions of cilia.

Leon Y. Chan, PhD [HHMI Fellow] with his sponsor Karsten Weis, PhD, at the University of California, Berkeley, California, is focusing on how cells slow their growth rate in response to stress. He aims to understand how stress signals are relayed to the cellular machinery that directs cell growth. Because tumor cells are constantly under stress yet display unregulated growth, it is critical to understand how stress signaling and growth control are coordinated. This research may lead to new understanding of how a broad range of cancers can be therapeutically targeted.

Adam de la Zerda, PhD, with his sponsor Carolyn R. Bertozzi, PhD, at the University of California, Berkeley, California, is developing imaging technology to visualize and monitor changes in living cells. Cancer cells display unique sugar patterns on their surface, which contain tremendous diagnostic information about tumor aggressiveness and responsiveness to therapy. The initial goal is to use this imaging technology to monitor tumor sugar patterns, as a method to stratify patients with prostate cancer and determine which patients may benefit from treatment vs. "active surveillance." In the future, this technology may be applied to other cancer types and may also shed light on the role of sugars in cancer development.

Sarah E. Ewald, PhD [Dennis and Marsha Dammerman Fellow] with her sponsor John C. Boothroyd, PhD, at Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California, studies the relationship between the parasite Toxoplasma gondii and the host cell. Nearly every cell in the body is equipped with sensors to survey itself for evidence of infection. Once triggered, these sensors often lead to cell suicide and the recruitment of immune cells to control the infection. She hopes to identify novel pathogen sensors that can be exploited to develop selective anti-tumor therapies.

Xi Huang, PhD, with his sponsor Lily Y. Jan, PhD, at the University of California, San Francisco, California, is investigating the mechanism of how an ion channel protein promotes brain tumor growth. He hypothesizes that medulloblastoma, the most common pediatric brain cancer, utilizes a specific ion channel for its uncontrolled growth and metastasis. By exploring the functional roles of the ion channel in medulloblastoma, his goal is to identify new prognostic markers for tumor diagnosis and potentially develop novel cancer therapies.

Calvin H. Jan, PhD [Rebecca Ridley Kry Fellow] with his sponsor Jonathan S. Weissman, PhD, at the University of California, San Francisco, California, is developing novel methods to examine the spatial control of gene expression within the cell. During gene expression, mRNAs are translated into proteins at different locations in the cell, which determines cell shape and behavior. Spatially localized mRNA translation influences cell adhesion and migration, both of which are disrupted in cancer-particularly during metastasis.

Hua Lu, PhD [The Jake Wetchler Foundation Fellow for Pediatric Innovation] with his sponsor Peter G. Schultz, PhD, at The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California, aims to develop antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) that can specifically recognize and kill acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cancer cells. His goal is to generate highly specific ADCs that will attack tumor cells without having harmful effects on normal cells. This work may identify new clinical candidate drugs with optimized efficacy.

Wan-Jin Lu, PhD [Merck Fellow] with her sponsor Philip A. Beachy, PhD, at Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California, is investigating the process of how cells interact with their surrounding microenvironment, specifically in the context of the regenerative response triggered by injury. She aims to better understand the underlying mechanisms of regeneration and how they influence the initiation and growth of malignant tumors.

Maurizio Righini, PhD [Merck Fellow] with his sponsor Carlos Bustamante, PhD, at the University of California, Berkeley, California, aims to characterize the dynamics of protein synthesis (translation). His research will permit a deeper understanding of this process and will provide insight on how it can be controlled. He will build a detailed model of translation, which may suggest new strategies for cancer therapy.

Sumeet Sarin, PhD [Marion Abbe Fellow] with his sponsor Joshua R. Sanes, PhD, at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, is studying how neurons use unique molecules on their cell surface to recognize one another during development. Such recognition is critical in ensuring appropriate spatial patterning and normal organ formation. A hallmark of cancerous cells is the inappropriate reactivation of cell migration, and the disruption of these patterns.

Daniel Schmidt, PhD [Norman B. Leventhal Fellow] with his sponsor Edward S. Boyden, PhD, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, focuses on the brain cancer glioblastoma multiforme, one of the most malignant, invasive and difficult-to-treat brain tumors. He aims to develop innovative research tools (bioengineered molecules) to investigate the role of critical proteins, ion channels, in glioblastoma growth and metastasis. These findings will lead to a better understanding of how ion channel disorders contribute to cancer development. Ion channels may represent new targets for cancer therapy.

Yoko Shibata, PhD [HHMI Fellow] with her sponsor Richard I. Morimoto, PhD, at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, focuses on specialized protein quality control (QC) mechanisms in the cell, which ensure the proper folding of new proteins and the disposal of mature ones that no longer perform their duties adequately. Protein QC in the cell nucleus likely plays a pivotal role in protecting the integrity of the genome, but very little is known about this pathway. She aims to identify the network of components that make up the nuclear protein QC system. Cancer cells rely on protein QC pathways to proliferate uncontrollably, and the identification of the QC components may provide new therapeutic targets against cancer.

Deniz Simsek, PhD [Philip O'Bryan Montgomery, Jr., MD Fellow] with her sponsor David P. Toczyski, PhD, at the University of California, San Francisco, California, is studying the role of ubiquitin protein signals in the maintenance of genome integrity. Since components of the ubiquitin system are often highly conserved from yeast to humans, yeast is ideally suited for the study of this complex process using a combination of functional genomics and biochemistry. The insights gained from the proposed studies may identify additional targets to combat cancer.

Cole Trapnell, PhD, with his sponsor John L. Rinn, PhD, at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, studies the role of long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) in cancer. When tissue is damaged (e.g. by radiation or carcinogens), this class of genes may cause cancer or make it more difficult to treat. Using software and mathematics that he has developed for the analysis of massive-scale sequencing data, he aims to discover which genes are misregulated by lncRNA in tumor cells. This research may lead to the discovery of lncRNAs that could be targeted to halt cancer progression.

Scott J. Valastyan, PhD, with his sponsor Joan S. Brugge, PhD, at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, seeks to uncover novel regulators of breast cancer metastasis. He has devised a novel experimental system that is capable of defining and exploiting the phenotypic heterogeneity and genetic diversity that exists within tumor cell populations. He anticipates that these studies will provide insights that further our comprehension of metastatic progression and suggest novel targets for the diagnosis and/or treatment of human breast cancer.

Alexander Ward, PhD [HHMI Fellow] with his sponsor Liqun Luo, PhD, at Stanford University, Stanford, California, is studying key genetic pathways that may play a role in development of neurons in the Drosophila olfactory system. Many of the genes in these pathways are also involved in cancer. Correct neuronal wiring in this system requires precise targeting of neuronal outgrowths (axons and dendrites); this targeting depends largely on cell-cell interactions mediated by cell surface molecules. The ultimate goal of this research is to identify the upstream cell surface effectors of these pathways, thus providing further insight into cancer signaling.

Hyun Youk, PhD [HHMI Fellow] with his sponsor Wendell A. Lim, PhD, at the University of California, San Francisco, California, aims to use quantitative models and experiments in yeast to unravel the central principles that enable cells to adhere to and communicate with each other in multicellular clusters. He is also investigating general strategies that these cells use to collectively process information and respond to biochemical signals that are present outside the cluster. These studies will lead to a better understanding of how multicellular clusters, such as tumors, develop and are maintained.


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