Three scientists with exceptional promise and novel approaches to fighting cancer have been named the 2022 recipients of the Damon Runyon Physician-Scientist Training Award. The awardees were selected through a highly competitive and rigorous process by a scientific committee comprised of leading cancer researchers who are themselves physician-scientists.
Physician-scientists are uniquely positioned to translate scientific discoveries into therapies that improve and prolong the lives of their patients. However, this vital cadre of cancer researchers is declining at a time when cancer research holds the greatest promise of new discovery. To help increase the number of physician-scientists, the Foundation created the Damon Runyon Physician-Scientist Training Award, which provides physicians who have completed clinical specialty fellowship training the opportunity to gain the skills and experience needed to become leaders in translational and clinical research.
Damon Runyon seeks to address the financial disincentives that often deter physicians from pursuing a research career by providing considerably higher funding than most research fellowships—$100,000 in the first year, with increases of $10,000 per year over the next three years. It will also retire up to $100,000 of any medical school debt still owed by an award recipient. (The average medical school debt now exceeds $200,000.)
Since its launch in 2015, the program has funded 35 new physician-scientists from across a range of disciplines. Their research has not only brought forth insights into how cancer develops and spreads but also led to the development of new therapies, including several in clinical trials. “Physician-scientists require protected time and funding for research, so that they can bring crucial insights from the clinic to the laboratory, and vice versa,” said Yung S. Lie, PhD, President and Chief Executive Officer of Damon Runyon. “Each of our physician-scientists is pursuing research with high potential for impact, and we are proud to enable this critical work.”
The Physician-Scientist Training Award was established thanks to the generosity of Damon Runyon Board members Leon Cooperman and Michael Gordon.
2022 Damon Runyon Physician-Scientist Training Award Recipients:
Wallace A. Bourgeois, MD, with mentor Scott A. Armstrong, MD, PhD, at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston
Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is an aggressive blood cancer that affects children and adults. One particularly difficult-to-treat subtype of AML that represents about 10% of all cases is characterized by a mutation in the KMT2A gene. Menin inhibitors (MI), a novel targeted therapy, have shown promise against this subtype in early clinical trials. Studies have also shown that compounds that degrade a protein called Ikaros can dramatically enhance the efficacy of MI. In seeking to uncover why MI and Ikaros protein degraders work well together, Dr. Bourgeois and his colleagues have found that both drugs target gene expression programs that are critical for the survival of KMT2A-mutant AML cells. Dr. Bourgeois is now working to better understand which genes can be targeted to further enhance the efficacy of Ikaros protein degraders in KMT2A-mutant AML. This work will shed light on the essential gene expression programs required for KMT2A-mutant AML cell survival, and ideally help guide drug development that specifically targets this subtype.
Mark B. Leick, MD, with mentor Marcela V. Maus, MD, PhD, at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston
The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research Physician-Scientist
Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is the most common acute leukemia in adults. Intensive chemotherapy cures only a subset of patients, and immunotherapy has had limited success in AML. One novel approach is chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy, which involves genetically engineering a patient’s own immune cells to target cancer cells. The difficulty with this approach is that the majority of available targets present on AML cells also reside on many normal cells. Based on emerging data demonstrating overexpression of the gene CD70 in AML cells compared to normal tissues, Dr. Leick and his colleagues have recently optimized a CD70-targeted CAR T therapy and demonstrated its efficacy in AML. Despite the superiority of this CAR over prior versions, however, it is less effective against AML cells that present a low amount of the antigen. Dr. Leick is now working to improve this CAR through genetic modification and/or a dual targeting approach. His work has the potential to generate a safe, highly potent, optimized strategy for treating this leukemia.
Mira A. Patel, MD, with mentor Sohail F. Tavazoie, MD, PhD, at The Rockefeller University, New York
One of the leading causes of death from cancer is metastasis, or when cancer spreads from its original tissue to other parts of the body. A gene that all humans carry, called Apolipoprotein E (APOE), plays a role in how our bodies respond to cancer, including risk of metastasis. The gene comes in one of three forms: APOE2, APOE3, or APOE4. Individuals who carry APOE2 tend to fare worse when diagnosed with melanoma, while those who carry APOE4 tend to have a much lower risk of melanoma metastasis and a much better chance of survival. (Those who carry APOE3 fall somewhere in between.) Dr. Patel is researching how APOE expression in immune cells either promotes cancer targeting, as in the case of APOE4, or cancer cell survival, as in the case of APOE2. With a better understanding of how the APOE gene affects the body's response to cancer, she hopes to improve cancer therapy by tailoring treatment to the form of APOE each patient carries.
About the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation
To accelerate breakthroughs, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation provides today's best young scientists with funding to pursue innovative research. The Foundation has gained worldwide prominence in cancer research by identifying outstanding researchers and physician-scientists. Thirteen scientists supported by the Foundation have received the Nobel Prize, and others are heads of cancer centers and leaders of renowned research programs. Each of its award programs is extremely competitive, with less than 10% of applications funded. Since our founding in 1946, in partnership with donors across the nation, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation has invested nearly $420 million and funded over 3,900 scientists. Last year, it committed over $18 million in new awards to brilliant young investigators.
100% of all donations to the Foundation are used to support scientific research. Administrative and fundraising costs are paid with revenue from the Damon Runyon Broadway Tickets Service and our endowment.
For more information visit damonrunyon.org.