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Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation awards $3.1M to 8 top young clinical investigators

New York, NY, July 1, 2010 The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation named five new Damon Runyon Clinical Investigators at its April 2010 Clinical Investigator Award Committee review. The recipients of this prestigious three-year award are outstanding early career physician-scientists conducting patient-oriented cancer research at major research centers under the mentorship of the nation's leading scientists and clinicians. Each will receive $450,000 to support the development of his/her cancer research program.

For the second time, the Foundation also awarded Continuation Grants to three Damon Runyon Clinical Investigators. Each award will provide an additional two years of funding totaling up to $300,000. The Continuation Grant is designed to support Clinical Investigators who are approaching the end of their original awards and need extra time and funding to complete a promising avenue of research or initiate/continue a clinical trial. This program is possible through the generous support of the William K. Bowes, Jr. Foundation, and Connie and Robert Lurie.

The Clinical Investigator Award program is specifically intended to help address the shortage of physicians capable of translating scientific discovery into new breakthroughs for cancer patients. In partnerships with industry sponsors (Eli Lilly and Company, Amgen, Genentech, Merck, Novartis, Pfizer and Siemens Medical Solutions), the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation has committed more than $35 million to support the careers of 53 physician-scientists across the United States since 2000.

2010 Clinical Investigator Awardees

Tobias J.E. Carling, MD, PhD [Doris Duke-Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator]

Dr. Carling focuses on endocrine tumors, a type of cancer that affects hormone-producing tissues in the body (such as the thyroid, pituitary gland, adrenal gland and islet cells of the pancreas). The underlying genetic basis for endocrine tumors is not yet known. Dr. Carling's goal is to complete a comprehensive genomic analysis of patients with endocrine tumor disease in order to identify individual genes involved in early cancer formation. His research will provide important insights into the development of endocrine tumors as well as other cancer types, laying the basis for future individualized medical and surgical management of cancer.

Dr. Carling works under the mentorship of Richard P. Lifton, MD, PhD, and Robert Udelsman, MD, MBA, at the Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut.

N. Lynn Henry, MD, PhD [Lilly Investigator]

Due to advances in cancer screening and treatments, the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer will be cured of their disease. However, many will require at least five years of therapy with medications called aromatase inhibitors, which greatly reduce the amount of estrogen circulating in the body. These drugs cause new or worsening aches and pains in about half of women, resulting in decreased quality of life.

One hypothesis is that medication-induced lowering of estrogen levels may affect pain perception, resulting in increased sensation of pain during therapy. In order to evaluate this hypothesis, Dr. Henry will conduct a clinical trial to assess change in pain threshold and development of aches and pains in women who are being treated with an aromatase inhibitor. In addition, she will determine if there is a link between pain symptoms during treatment and inherited mutations in genes involved in pain perception; this will address whether some women are predisposed to developing symptoms during aromatase inhibitor therapy. The overall goal is to gain a better understanding of why pain symptoms occur, so that these symptoms can be prevented or treated, thereby improving the quality of life of breast cancer survivors.

Dr. Henry works under the mentorship of Daniel F. Hayes, MD, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Kevin R. Kozak, MD, PhD [Genentech Investigator]

Tumors depend on new blood vessel formation for growth and spread. This process, known as angiogenesis, is an attractive target for cancer therapy. Unfortunately, antiangiogenic agents have proven less efficacious than anticipated. Preclinical results suggest that combinations of antiangiogenic agents and radiation may have great therapeutic utility; however, it remains unclear how these treatment modalities interact and how best to integrate them.

Dr. Kozak will use biochemical, cellular and animal models to develop strategies to optimally integrate antiangiogenic therapies with radiation. Positron emission tomography (PET) will be used for non-invasive monitoring of angiogenesis in mouse tumor models, and these results will be correlated to treatment responses. Guided by results of these studies, he plans to initiate a pilot human trial of antiangiogenic therapy to determine if PET imaging can identify a therapeutic window during which radiation may be particularly effective. The proposed project represents an integrated "bench-to-bedside" effort to optimize antiangiogenic therapy.

Dr. Kozak works under the mentorship of Paul M. Harari, MD, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.

Igor Matushansky, MD, PhD

Novel therapeutic approaches are necessary to improve the outcome of patients with sarcomas and other solid tumors. Dr. Matushansky aims to test his hypothesis that chromatin remodeling agents, which alter gene expression, can induce solid tumors to undergo biological and morphological changes that lead them to resemble their corresponding normal tissue, a process referred to as maturation or differentiation. Maturation or differentiation therapy provides an opportunity to fundamentally change the biology of the underlying cancer (and thus its overall prognosis). While a change of an undifferentiated/high grade sarcoma (or carcinoma) into completely normal tissue remains an ideal, albeit likely unrealistic goal, a change from a 'poorly differentiated/high grade' tumor to a 'well differentiated/low grade' tumor is attainable; this can improve an individual's median time of survival from months to decades. Dr. Matushansky hopes to implement this therapeutic approach for sarcomas and other solid tumors.

Dr. Matushansky works under the mentorship of Carlos Cordon-Cardo, MD, PhD, at Columbia University, New York, New York.

Brian G. Till, MD [Pfizer Investigator]

Certain types of lymphoma, such as the indolent B cell lymphomas and mantle cell lymphoma, are incurable with standard therapies. These diseases can, however, be cured using stem cell transplantation, in which immune T cells from the donor kill lymphoma cells. This procedure unfortunately carries the serious risk of graft-versus-host disease, which can be life-threatening.

In order to provide safer therapy options, Dr. Till's goal is to develop a new treatment for lymphoma using patients' own T cells to fight their cancers: patient cells are collected, a gene is inserted into the cells that allows them to recognize and kill lymphoma cells, and then the cells are infused back into the patient. He is leading a phase I clinical trial testing this treatment in lymphoma patients. He is optimistic that this strategy will translate into a safe, curative treatment for patients with lymphoma; insights from this work may help to advance similar treatments for other types of cancer.

Dr. Till works under the mentorship of Oliver W. Press, MD, PhD, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, Washington.

2010 Clinical Investigator Continuation Grants

Colleen Delaney, MD, MSc [Novartis Investigator]

Dr. Delaney completed a Phase I clinical trial demonstrating that expanded cord blood cells infused into acute leukemia patients resulted in successful rapid engraftment (recovery of the immune system after transplantation). The Continuation Grant will be used to examine the immune mechanism of how these transplanted cord blood cells persist in the patient. These studies will be important for improving the success of transplants in patients.

Dr. Delaney works under the mentorship of Irwin Bernstein, MD, and Frederick Appelbaum, MD, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, Washington.

Douglas K. Graham, MD, PhD [Novartis Investigator]

Dr. Graham focuses on Mer, a receptor tyrosine kinase that plays a role in hematological cancers, such as leukemias, as well as brain cancer (glioblastoma) and certain lung cancers. He has demonstrated that blocking Mer activity leads to enhanced leukemia cell death, particularly when combined with chemotherapy. The Continuation Grant will provide support for Dr. Graham to continue research evaluating two biological inhibitors of Mer (an antibody and a small molecule inhibitor) as potential new therapeutics for pediatric leukemias. Current therapies are highly toxic both in the short-term and long-term; highly targeted treatments such as a Mer inhibitor could offer less toxic, more effective therapy for patients.

Dr. Graham works under the mentorship of James V. DeGregori, PhD, and Sue Gail Eckhardt, MD, at the University of Colorado Denver, Aurora, Colorado.

Catherine J. Wu, MD

Dr. Wu's goal is to develop new immune-based treatments for chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Current treatments for these diseases are effective for a short time, but patients ultimately relapse and die of their disease. The Continuation Grant will enable Dr. Wu to continue developing tumor-specific immunotherapy with minimal side effects that will target the leukemia cells and ultimately lead to a non-toxic therapy to cure CLL.

Dr. Wu works under the mentorship of Jerome Ritz, MD, at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts.


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

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