Damon Runyon creates new award to increase number of physician-scientists

Physician-scientists are crucial to moving scientific discoveries from the lab to patients, but their numbers have been dwindling just when they are needed most, particularly in cancer research, as the number of cancer cases is projected to increase by 45 percent in the next fifteen years and elevate cancer to the leading cause of death in America.

"Physician-scientists have the unique capacity to blend their insights from treating patients and working in the laboratory in a way that enables and accelerates medical advances," said Yung S. Lie, PhD, Deputy Director and Chief Scientific Officer of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. "If the present shortage of physician-scientists continues, we risk a situation in which some major laboratory research discoveries may not reach patients at all, and that would represent a true crisis in cancer research."

To help increase the number of physician-scientists, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation (Damon Runyon) has created a new award, the Damon Runyon Physician-Scientist Training Award, which provides physicians who have earned an MD degree and completed clinical specialty fellowship training the opportunity to gain the research skills and experience they need to become leaders in translational and clinical research.

Damon Runyon seeks to address the financial disincentives that often deter physicians from pursuing a research career by providing considerably higher funding than most research fellowships--$100,000 in the first year, with increases of $10,000 per year over the next three years. It will also retire up to $100,000 of any medical school debt still owed by an award recipient. (The average medical school debt is now more than $150,000.)

Damon Runyon announced that three scientists with novel approaches to fighting cancer have been named the 2015 recipients of the Damon Runyon Physician-Scientist Training Award. The awardees were selected through a highly competitive and rigorous process by a scientific committee comprised of leading cancer researchers who are themselves physician-scientists. Only those scientists showing exceptional promise and a passion for finding new cures for cancer were selected to receive the award.

"Too often, medical students and recent graduates discover their passion for research when it is too late to join an MD-PhD program or otherwise acquire the experience they need to pursue a research career," said Lorraine W. Egan, President and CEO of Damon Runyon. "Physicians are essential to cancer research but often lack the opportunity and grant support needed to become researchers. We felt it was important to create that opportunity and hope that other organizations will use this award as a model."

The Physician-Scientist Training Award was established thanks to the generosity of Damon Runyon Board members Leon Cooperman and Michael Gordon.

2015 Damon Runyon Physician-Scientist Training Award Recipients:

Pavan Bachireddy, MD, with Mentor Catherine J. Wu, MD, at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts

Patients with relapsed blood cancers after allogeneic stem cell transplant are often treated with donor lymphocyte infusion (DLI), a type of immunotherapy that boosts the anti-tumor response and aims to induce cancer remission. The success of DLI varies from patient to patient. Dr. Bachireddy aims to investigate the determinants of DLI success and failure by studying the leukemic and immune cells during response to immunotherapy. Careful study of successful anti-tumor immune responses may reveal insights into tumor-immune interactions that may be relevant to predicting patient response to novel immunotherapies in other tumors.

Carolyn C. Jackson, MD, with Mentor Jean-Laurent Casanova, MD, PhD, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, New York

Kaposi sarcoma (KS), a potentially fatal cancer especially in immunodeficient individuals, is caused by human herpes virus-8 (HHV-8), a carcinogenic agent declared by the World Health Organization. Human genetic variability may account for the variability in the clinical outcome of HHV-8 infection. Dr. Jackson aims to discover novel genetic alterations underlying childhood KS and to understand how specific gene defects drive KS in conjunction with HHV-8. The genetic study of KS in childhood may provide new insights into the pathogenesis of KS, and aid in developing potential future therapeutics. It will also benefit children at risk of KS in regions of the world where the prevalence of HHV-8 is high.

Loretta S. Li, MD, with Mentor David Weinstock, MD, at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts

Approximately 10-15% of pediatric and adult patients with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL) have a high-risk form of the disease characterized by rearrangements of a gene called CRLF2. Alterations of this gene result in increased expression of the CRLF2 protein and promote leukemia development. When treated with conventional chemotherapy, patients with CRLF2 gene alterations do poorly. Their leukemias are dependent on an enzyme called JAK2 for survival, yet no targeted therapies with proven efficacy are currently available. Dr. Li has unique access to a new drug that turns off JAK2 enzyme activity, potently kills B-ALL cells, and improves overall survival in mice with JAK2-dependent B-ALL. Treatment with this drug alone is not curative, however, and all mice eventually succumb to progressive leukemia. She will study how leukemia becomes resistant to JAK2 inhibitors. Her goal is to identify combinations of agents that can prevent or overcome resistance to a single therapy and also guide the development of new JAK2 inhibitors for patients.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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