Four young scientists named recipients of Damon Runyon-Sohn Pediatric Cancer Research Fellowship Award

The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation has named four outstanding young scientists as recipients of the prestigious Damon Runyon-Sohn Pediatric Cancer Research Fellowship Award, committing nearly $875,000 to help address a critical shortage of funding for pediatric cancer research.

The Fellowship Award provides funding to basic scientists and clinicians who conduct research with the potential to significantly impact the prevention, diagnosis or treatment of one or more pediatric cancers. Each recipient receives a four-year award ($248,000 for physician-scientists, $208,000 for basic scientists). Since 2012, this award has supported fourteen innovative pediatric cancer researchers.

The Sohn Conference Foundation, dedicated to curing pediatric cancers, announced in 2012 that it was granting $1.5 million to the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, the leading charity supporting innovative young cancer researchers, to establish the award. The award program continues to receive funding and recognition within the philanthropic community. Lead funding for the 2015 class of awardees was generously provided by the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance.

2015 Damon Runyon-Sohn Fellows

Ozlem Aksoy, PhD, with her sponsor Davide Ruggero, PhD, at the University of California, San Francisco, is establishing a human stem-cell based model of medulloblastoma brain tumors that can be rapidly manipulated, allowing insights into how genetic mutation contributes to medulloblastoma tumorigenesis and how these mutations cooperate in tumor formation. She will study the highest-risk subtype of medulloblastoma, with the goal of understanding the possible role of translational control in this cancer. She will test both novel and existing mTOR inhibitors as a potential therapeutic strategy for patients.

Amanda L. Balboni, PhD, with her sponsor Kimberly Stegmaier, MD, at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, studies Ewing sarcoma, a rare pediatric solid tumor containing a characteristic chromosomal translocation that fuses the EWSR1 gene to the FLI1 gene. The resulting EWS/FLI fusion protein initiates an oncogenic gene expression program, thus promoting tumorigenesis. EWS/FLI represents an attractive tumor-specific therapeutic target; however, it has been difficult to pharmacologically inhibit. Her work will focus on elucidating a novel approach to selectively target EWS/FLI by utilizing a small-molecule inhibitor against the transcriptional regulator proteins CDK12/13. This research will contribute to our understanding of Ewing sarcoma cell biology and has important clinical implications for other cancers driven by similar transcription factor fusion proteins.

Stacy L. Cooper, MD, with her sponsor Alan D. Friedman, MD, at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, focuses on developing novel therapies for acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which has an approximately 50% mortality rate. Her work focuses on C/EBPalpha, a protein that is decreased in more than half of all AML patients. By determining how the production of this protein is regulated, she aims to understand the mechanisms for its reduction in leukemia and to develop strategies to target C/EBPalpha as a novel therapy for AML.

Zhipeng Lu, PhD [Layton Family Fellow of the Damon Runyon-Sohn Foundation Pediatric Cancer Fellowship Award], with his sponsor Howard Y. Chang, MD, PhD, at Stanford University, Stanford, is developing new methods for direct analyses of RNA structures and RNA-RNA interactions in living cells, which remain a major technical challenge. RNA helicases and RNA binding proteins interact with and remodel RNA structures to coordinate all aspects of RNA metabolism, and mutations in these proteins lead to many cancers such as medulloblastoma brain tumors. Using these novel methods, his goal is to dissect the mechanisms of RNA helicases and RNA binding proteins in regulating RNA metabolism and to identify druggable targets for cancer treatment.

"These are some of the best young scientists working in pediatric research today, and they're at a critical juncture in their careers," says William Carroll, MD, chair of the Damon Runyon-Sohn Pediatric Cancer Fellowship Committee and Professor of Pediatrics and Pathology at New York University Langone Medical Center. "They need our financial support, and we need their brilliant minds focused on curing childhood cancers. That is why this award is so important."

Because cancer occurs less frequently in children and young adults than in the adult population, pediatric cancer research does not receive significant funding from either the National Cancer Institute (only four percent of its budget) or the biopharmaceutical industry. As a result, there have been limited advances in recent years in treating these cancers, and fewer scientists are working in this field.

"I am inspired by Damon Runyon's commitment to supporting excellent young scientists who are dedicating themselves to cancer research," says Evan Sohn of the Sohn Conference Foundation. "Our Foundation is investing in this unique fellowship because it has the potential to change how cancer care is provided to children and young adults."

Source: Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation

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