Kevin McHugh, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice University's George R. Brown School of Engineering, has earned a Distinguished Scientist Award for 2022 from The Sontag Foundation, which helps launch the careers of scientists expected to make a significant impact in the fight against brain cancer.
McHugh, a CPRIT Scholar who joined Rice in 2019, is developing strategies that employ gene editing to defeat glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive brain cancer that few patients survive with for more than five years.
His Rice lab will customize CRISPR components to target tumor cells that harbor mutations unique to cancer. Delivering gene therapy agents directly to a tumor would induce the production of a toxic protein and subsequent cell death exclusively in glioblastoma multiforme cells throughout the brain.
McHugh said such a treatment could dramatically improve survival and reduce the neurological side effects associated with the radiation and chemotherapy often used to treat patients with glioblastoma tumors.
"The things we're doing align pretty well with the Cancer Moonshot," he said noting a current White House initiative, one President Joe Biden talked about during a 2016 visit to Rice. "These things are science fiction until they're science fact. Obviously, the body throws you some curveballs in terms of what should work, but I think we have a good foundation."
McHugh has partnered with cancer specialists at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine to develop and test his approach. "We've done some modeling to show these concepts generally work," he said. "Now it's about personalizing them to mutations that are specific to the patients."
The Sontag Foundation, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, is the largest funder of brain cancer research in North America. The foundation was established in 2002 by Frederick and Susan Sontag following Susan's battle with a normally lethal form of brain cancer.
To date, the foundation has granted $55 million in funding to support brain cancer research. In 2014, the foundation established The Brain Tumor Network to provide free navigation services for patients with brain tumors, helping to connect them to brain cancer specialists, second opinions and clinical trials.