PICI awards $3 million to support early career cancer researchers

From improving immunotherapy response in childhood cancer patients, to better understanding how cancer's spread to the liver affects the body's immune system, to helping T cells stay energized to fight cancer, The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI)'s 2021 class of early career researchers award recipients are pursuing ideas that have the potential to change the face of oncology. The awardees, officially announced today, are now empowered to advance their boldest ideas thanks to almost $3 million in support, as well as guidance from and collaboration with PICI's world-class network of immunotherapy experts.

The six recipients come from leading research institutions in PICI's network, including Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Penn's Abramson Cancer Center (Penn), the Stanford University School of Medicine, the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, and Gladstone Institutes. They also come from a variety of backgrounds, both in terms of their training and their geography, as half of the awardees were born outside of the mainland U.S. - Hawaii, the United Kingdom and France.

This year's class of Parker Scholars, Bridge Fellows and Senior Fellows are an exceptional group of young scientists. From projects that have historically been strong suits for PICI like T cell exhaustion to new areas like dendritic cells and immune tolerance, these rising stars will enable us to broaden our efforts to turn all cancers into curable diseases."

Lisa Butterfield, PhD, Vice President of Research and Development, PICI

The 2021 awardees are:

  • Jean-Christophe Beltra, PhD, Parker Scholar at Penn, is working to unravel the role cytokines play in CD8 T cell exhaustion. Following his recent research which identified additional subsets of exhausted CD8 T cells and the complex process that leads to their exhaustion, he is now focused on determining how these cytokines can be guided and fine-tuned into a more effective combination partner with PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitors.
  • Chrysothemis (Chryssie) Brown, MBBS, PhD, Parker Senior Fellow at MSK, is focused on how different dendritic cells influence tumor progression and response to immunotherapy. By better understanding the immune system of pediatric patients, she hopes to identify new immunotherapy targets to elicit responses to solid tumors in children.
  • Caleb Lareau, PhD, Parker Scholar at Stanford, studies the way human cells change over time, looking for the mechanisms and markings that predate when a cell becomes cancerous. The ability to intervene in that process could lead to using immunotherapy as a preventative treatment.
  • James Lee, MD, Parker Bridge Fellow at UCSF, is a medical oncologist specializing in melanoma. His research is focused on understanding how the spread of cancer to the liver can impact the rest of the immune system, particularly in how they inhibit the efficacy of T-cell based immunotherapy.
  • Zachary Steinhart, PhD, Parker Scholar at Gladstone Institutes, is applying CRISPR gene editing approaches to improve CAR T cell therapy. He is working to gain insight into the genes that are essential to T cells that can be edited to make therapies more effective.
  • Evan Weber, PhD, Parker Bridge Fellow at Stanford, is also working on ways to improve the efficacy of CAR T cells, and his approach is tied to T cell exhaustion. By manipulating certain regions of DNA or proteins that can reshape DNA, he hopes to enable CAR T cells to resist or reverse their exhaustion, allowing them to kill cancer cells more efficiently.

While each of the early career researchers will receive financial benefit, they were unanimous in their feeling that what truly sets this program apart is the access it grants them to other leaders in the field, as well as services like informatics that they would not be able to utilize on their own.

"None of these discoveries will come from one person alone," Brown said. "Being part of this collaboration is the key to delivering on the promise of our ideas."

"Being able to reach out and regularly interact with folks at the senior faculty level is what I'm looking forward to the most," Lee said. "The informatics support and tissue banking support are among the best in the country."

"The most important developmental components of my career have come from working with people from different backgrounds. PICI is an incredible network, enabling team science at a level that is truly special and unique," Lareau said. "It's something for which I'm tremendously excited."

In addition to funding bold ideas, the program is also a training ground for researchers as they prepare for the future of their science careers.

"It's a great way for me to not only advance my research, but to learn how to manage a grant and manage money, which is something I will have to do if I run my own lab one day," Beltra said.

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