Public Release: 

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

Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation awards $1.8 million to 6 innovative early career scientists

Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation

New York, NY (January 14, 2015) - The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation announced that six scientists with novel approaches to fighting cancer have been named 2015 recipients of the Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award. The grant of $300,000 over two years is awarded each year to early career scientists whose projects have the potential to significantly impact the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Each awardee will have the opportunity for up to two additional years of funding (up to four years total for $600,000). Continued support for years three and four will be granted to those awardees who demonstrate significant progress on their proposed research during the first two years of the award.

The Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award funds cancer research by exceptionally creative thinkers with "high-risk/high-reward" ideas who lack sufficient preliminary data to obtain traditional funding. The awardees are selected through a highly competitive and rigorous process by a scientific committee comprised of leading cancer researchers who are innovators themselves. Only those scientists with a clear vision and passion for curing cancer are selected to receive the prestigious award.

This program was established thanks to the generosity of Andy and Debbie Rachleff.

2015 Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovators:

Nicholas T. Ingolia, PhD
University of California, Berkeley

The uncontrolled growth and metastasis of cancer cells is driven by changes in the genes expressed by these cells, relative to cells in healthy tissue. Understanding these gene expression changes provides key insights into the behaviors of cancer cells and guides the design of anti-cancer therapies.

Dr. Ingolia is studying a cellular process called translation, which generates protein from RNA. Important gene expression changes result from differences in the translation of mRNAs into functional proteins, rather than the abundance of these mRNAs in the cell. He has developed innovative techniques to comprehensively profile translation in cells and proposes to apply this approach to understand the gene expression differences between normal and cancerous cells. These gene expression changes will reveal distinctive features of cancer cells that explain their pathological behavior and potentially expose new vulnerabilities of these cells that could be targeted to treat cancer.

Christopher M. Jewell, PhD
University of Maryland, College Park

Tumors evade the immune system by suppressing the function of T cells otherwise capable of destroying cancer cells. These T cells develop in lymph nodes - specialized tissues that control responses against cancer, infection, and other disease. As T cells become activated against tumors, the cells differentiate and proliferate at much slower rates. This decreased proliferation dramatically reduces the effectiveness of anti-tumor immune responses.

Dr. Jewell is uniquely trained in both immunology and materials science. He is harnessing bioengineering, immunology, and polymer design to create degradable vaccine "depots" in lymph nodes. The goal is to use these depots to control how T cells develop, promoting a cell fate specific for attacking tumors that also maintains the ability to proliferate at the extremely high rates needed to clear existing tumors and protect against regrowth. This is the first time these ideas have been explored, and the findings from his research will support development of a new class of cancer vaccines that could clear existing tumors and prevent relapse.

Ning Jenny Jiang, PhD
University of Texas, Austin

Many diseases could be cured if the power of our own immune systems could be harnessed. For cancer, the theory of "cancer immunoediting" provides a hypothesis for how tumors escape detection by the immune system.

Dr. Jiang, a biomedical engineer, works at the interface of systems biology, genomics, and immunology. Her lab is developing a single cell-based integrated technological approach to challenge this theory. She will profile the immune system repertoire for antigen specificity, receptor gene sequences, and cellular function-related gene expression. Her approach may provide explanations for why and how the immune system tolerates tumors. Her proposed study may result in a paradigm shift that could improve cancer immunotherapies and also revolutionize health care with new personalized immune metrics for early disease detection and targeted therapy.

Guillem Pratx, PhD
Stanford University, Stanford

Many studies have shown that the cancer cells within a tumor form a remarkably diverse population. These cellular differences play a significant role in how the tumor develops and how it responds to therapy. A technology called flow cytometry (a high-throughput method for characterizing single cells) has been critical for these findings; however, the technology is inherently limited because it can only measure biochemical processes that can be interrogated using a fluorescent molecule.

Dr. Pratx, an engineer by training, is developing a novel method that would enable flow cytometry to measure single cell uptake of any non-fluorescent molecule. This challenging feat will be accomplished by exploiting the fact that molecules can be labeled by radioisotopes. This new tool could transform the ability to study normal and abnormal molecular processes in single cancer cells by allowing flow cytometry to interrogate a much wider range of biomolecules, with high throughput and high temporal resolution.

Brian H. Shirts, MD, PhD
University of Washington, Seattle

Clinical testing for inherited cancer risk often leads to identification of rare genetic variants, but it is uncertain if these variants affect cancer risk. This uncertainty is difficult for cancer patients who want to know the best way to prevent future cancers in themselves and their families.

Dr. Shirts is a clinical geneticist whose goal is to empower patients who have been diagnosed with rare genetic mutations (variants of uncertain significance, or VUS) to actively participate in family tree pedigree building to understand their own genetic risk for cancer and other diseases. He will develop an online toolkit to help cancer patients use publicly available genealogy and networking resources to determine if their own variants travel with cancer in their extended family. This project will pioneer an efficient way for patients and their families to work with genetics laboratories to classify VUS, giving cancer patients control over their own genetic information. This innovative strategy will also create a new source for the highest quality genotype-cancer correlation data, which will benefit cancer researchers and, eventually, everyone at risk for cancer.

Elçin Ünal, PhD
University of California, Berkeley

Aging is the primary risk factor for developing cancer. Despite the growing list of age-associated defects, we do not yet understand why aging is one of the most potent carcinogens.

Dr. Ünal proposes to study a natural developmental process, called gametogenesis, which reverses cellular aging. She will use this as a platform to illuminate the molecular causes of aging and to develop new strategies to counteract age-induced cellular damage. Her approach will identify the genes that play a direct role in attenuating the aging process and could facilitate the development of novel strategies to improve human health by decreasing susceptibility to cancer.

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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. Twelve 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 its founding in 1946, the Foundation has invested over $287 million and funded more than 3,460 young scientists. This year, it will commit approximately $15 million in new awards to brilliant young investigators.

100% of all donations to the Foundation are used to support scientific research. Its administrative and fundraising costs are paid from its Damon Runyon Broadway Tickets Service and endowment.

For more information visit http://www.damonrunyon.org

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