UT Southwestern's Dr. Deepak Nijhawan became a co-recipient of the 2018 Donald Seldin-Holly Smith Award for Pioneering Research. The award recognizes Dr. Nijhawan's work identifying targets for cancer treatment.
In particular, Dr. Nijhawan, an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Internal Medicine and Biochemistry, and members of his laboratory have made significant advances working with indisulam and CD437, identified as anti-cancer agents in the 1990s but not subsequently developed at that time because their targets were poorly understood. In 2016, Dr. Nijhawan's group first identified the protein target of CD437, followed the next year by the identification of the target of indisulam and of cancer-cell variants most susceptible to its effects. These discoveries have generated new interest in these agents, which are now in active development.
"We take an 'old-fashioned' and now uncommon approach to cancer drug discovery," said Dr. Nijhawan, a physician-scientist. "Most current drug discovery efforts focus on a specific gene or protein and look for ways to influence them with small molecules. By contrast, we start with the small molecule and then work backward to find its protein target. Indisulam and CD437 were promising lead molecules more than 20 years ago. By uncovering their targets, we have revitalized the effort to develop them into potential therapeutics."
The Seldin-Smith Award, now in its third year, was established by the American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI) to connect the legacies of two iconic figures in U.S. medicine – Dr. Donald Seldin of UT Southwestern and Dr. Lloyd "Holly" Smith Jr. of the University of California, San Francisco – with exceptionally creative early career individuals.
Dr. Nijhawan shares the award with Harvard Medical School Assistant Professor Dr. Anna Greka, who focuses on developing targeted treatments for kidney diseases. They will share unrestricted support of $30,000 to advance their academic efforts and will be recognized April 21 during the ASCI's joint annual meeting with the Association of American Physicians and the American Physician Scientists Association.
"The fact that Dr. Nijhawan is a fully trained physician in internal medicine, and at the same time in full command of the tools of molecular biology and the study of cancer, emphasizes the importance of a creative internal medicine clinical program that can apply basic science to cancer treatment," said Dr. Seldin, Chairman Emeritus and UT System Professor of Internal Medicine who holds the William Buchanan Chair in Internal Medicine.
Dr. Seldin is nationally known as one of the greatest departmental chairs in the history of internal medicine. His seven-decade career as a visionary, a tenacious leader, and a demanding-yet-patient teacher has established him as the "intellectual father of UT Southwestern.''
"This is a special honor because Drs. Seldin and Smith are heroes amongst physician-scientists," Dr. Nijhawan said. "It is particularly special for me because it is in part named after Dr. Seldin. I am the beneficiary of the tradition of rigorous scientific inquiry that he founded at UT Southwestern."
"It is extremely heartening to know that the Seldin-Smith Pioneering Research Award will be given to Dr. Nijhawan," Dr. Seldin said. "The work for which he is being honored deploys state-of-the-art biochemistry and molecular genetics to elucidate biological mechanisms for chemotherapeutics. His elegant experimental design has identified fundamental cellular processes such as RNA splicing – processes previously lacking clear evidence for druggability in cancer – as targets of these agents. As a result of his work, exciting new studies may lead to the development of truly novel therapeutic approaches in the treatment of malignancy."
Dr. Steven McKnight, Professor of Biochemistry and holder of the Distinguished Chair in Basic Biomedical Research at UT Southwestern who supported Dr. Nijhawan's nomination, wrote, "These discoveries, I predict, constitute the most promising avenue of any for biomedical research to achieve the discovery of entirely new therapeutics over the upcoming decade."
The Nijhawan group has partnered with Peloton Therapeutics to further investigate its indisulam discoveries and with the Harrington Discovery Institute to develop CD437 into a cancer therapeutic. Dr. McKnight is the Scientific Founder and Chairman of Peloton's Scientific Advisory Board.
Dr. Nijhawan earned both his medical and doctoral degrees in 2005 from UT Southwestern's acclaimed Medical Scientist Training Program. Following his education and training at UT Southwestern, Dr. Nijhawan completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (2007) and a fellowship in medical oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (2011). His laboratory work has been supported in part by the Sass Foundation for Medical Research, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, the Harrington Discovery Institute, and the National Cancer Institute.
The Seldin-Smith Award complements two other prestigious ASCI awards – the Stanley J. Korsmeyer Award and the ASCI/Harrington Prize for Innovation in Medicine – that recognize senior physician-scientists who have made major contributions to science, mentorship, and the translation of discovery to clinical impact.