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2009 Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Awards granted for pioneering ideas in cancer research

NEW YORK, NY and PALO ALTO, CA January 22, 2009 -- The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation announced today that four young scientists with novel approaches to fighting cancer have won the 2009 Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Awards. The prize of $450,000 over three years is awarded each year to three projects by early-career scientists that have the potential to have a major impact on the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

The 2009 Damon RunyonRachleff Innovators are:

Muneesh Tewari, MD, PhD, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle: for Early Detection of Ovarian and Lung Cancers

For many years, scientists have unsuccessfully attempted to detect microscopic elements of tumors in blood for the purpose of diagnosing cancer in its early stages. With the recent advancements in computing power and DNA sequencing, Dr. Tewari is able to pursue a new line of investigation focused on microRNAs a course which could finally lead to a solution.

Dr. Tewari has discovered that certain microRNAs are only made by tumor cells and that these can be detected in blood samples. His work could lead to the development of a highly sensitive blood test for cancers, particularly ovarian and lung, both of which are notoriously difficult to detect in their initial stages.

Dr. Tewari said, "We have come to a point where a substantially new approach for early detection has opened up, yet the work is so early that traditional sources of funding are not willing to invest in it. Thanks to the Foundation and the Rachleffs' vision and support, the concept will be able to be developed with full vigor."

Ivan Maillard, MD, PhD, and Yi Zhang, MD, PhD, both of the University of Michigan: for Radical Improvements of Bone Marrow Transplant Safety

Bone marrow transplantation is frequently used to treat cancer, mainly leukemias and lymphomas. When successful, bone marrow transplants literally offer a new lease on life for patients. However, despite close matching of donors to patients, sometimes transplanted cells do not recognize the host's body as compatible and launch an attack upon it. This effect, called Graft Versus Host disease, leads to severe tissue and organ damage, infection, and can result in death.

Prevention of Graft Versus Host disease has long evaded scientists, despite their many efforts. Drs. Maillard and Zhang's promising discovery, focusing on a type of cell activity called 'Notch,' could provide hope for a cure.

The two doctors have established preliminary evidence that Notch activity is a driving force behind Graft Versus Host disease. Moreover, as Notch activity is implicated in other diseases, there may be existing drugs that could be used to treat it.

Dr. Maillard said, "As a doctor, I know firsthand the dangerous side effects associated with Graft Versus Host disease. We hope that through this project we will minimize this life-threatening complication and allow more patients to benefit from the anti-cancer effects of bone marrow transplantation. This award will both facilitate and speed the process of moving towards these goals."

Dr. Zhang said, "The Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award provides us with much-needed funding to pursue a high risk, high reward project, and could initiate a fruitful cycle of financial support from others who see its potential endorsed at this level. Having the backing of the Rachleffs and the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, which has funded 11 Nobel Prize winners, is a huge vote of confidence in what we do."

John L. Rinn, PhD, the Broad Institute, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Harvard Medical School: for the Discovery of New Genetic Markers of Cancer

As scientists' knowledge of the human genome expands, so does their understanding of how diseases within the body operate, which can then lead to new treatments and cures.

Dr. Rinn and his colleagues have discovered a new class of molecule that may have important implications for understanding and treating cancer. lincRNAs large intergenic non-coding RNAs are unique from other materials in cells, however, their precise function remains unknown. Dr. Rinn aims to decipher the workings of lincRNAs and proposes based on his pioneering early research - that they may have a role in tumor formation. His work could lead to new ways to diagnose and target multiple cancer types.

Dr. Rinn said, "It is truly an honor to be recognized by a scientific organization as storied as the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, especially as it appreciates the value in taking big risks for big rewards. Being granted this Award is like winning the Super Bowl for a young scientist starting a lab!"

Funding Daring Research

Debbie and Andy Rachleff partnered with the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation to create the Innovation Award in 2007.

Andy Rachleff commented, "We're thrilled with the caliber of the people and the proposals received this year. A large number of young investigators submitted applications that proposed to take significant risks in order to achieve breakthroughs in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. As a venture capitalist, I look for visionaries with daring ideas. It is exciting to see these qualities in all of the winning proposals.

"Scientists at this stage of their career often struggle to gain funding for any out-of-the-box ideas, even if they have huge potential. This is in direct contrast to venture capital funding, where young people are recognized as being the most likely to make breakthroughs. This Award was designed to address this incongruity."

Lorraine Egan, Executive Director of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, added, "Most research funded today is safe and incremental. For large breakthroughs, we need to take risks. We're delighted to once again be funding such innovative ideas."

Mr. Rachleff is a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Stanford School of Business, and a co-founder of Benchmark Capital. His previous investments include AOL and Juniper Networks.


Contact: Yung S. Lie, Ph.D.
Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation

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