Marcela V. Maus, MD, PhD

Dr. Maus has developed a way of engineering the body’s own immune T cells, so that they are re-directed to fight deadly brain tumors like glioblastoma. However, in studies of patients with brain tumors, she has found that the tumor cells try to escape the engineered T cells. She will use the Innovation Award to redesign the T cells so that they block two forms of escape used by the tumors. By preventing tumor escape from immune cells, she expects that the engineered T cells will be more powerful and may become a new form of potentially curative treatment for brain tumors.

Kurt J. Warnhoff, PhD

Dr. Warnhoff is studying how the timing of developmental events is regulated at the genetic level. Importantly, failures in normal developmental biology often give rise to cancer. microRNAs (miRNAs) are a class of key regulators of developmental timing. These small RNA molecules regulate gene expression, developmental transitions, metabolism, cell fate, and cell death.

Iva Tchasovnikarova, PhD

Dr. Tchasovnikarova is investigating the role of chromatin remodeling in epigenetic gene silencing by the recently discovered HUSH complex. Her research aims to delineate how heterochromatin formation is achieved through the concerted action of heterochromatin-associated proteins, heterochromatic histone modifications, and ATP-driven chromatin remodeling. As heterochromatin formation has been shown to be associated with oncogenic events, her future work will define general principles that could be exploited to design cancer therapies aimed at heterochromatin dysregulation.

Kai Mao, PhD

Dr. Mao is studying the cell’s cytoskeleton, which provides the physical structure and shape of a cell. The cytoskeleton is an attractive target for cancer chemotherapy because of its central function in mitosis or cell division, but these chemotherapeutic agents have very high toxicity. He hypothesizes that the next generation of chemotherapy will benefit from the inhibition of these toxin response pathways. He will examine how cells respond to such drugs, with the goal of applying these findings to attenuate the drugs’ side effects.

Ryan B. Corcoran, MD, PhD

Mutations in the BRAF gene occur in 10-15% of colorectal cancers and predict poor outcome. Drugs that block the action of mutant BRAF are under active clinical development, and one drug that blocks BRAF was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of metastatic melanoma. However, these BRAF inhibitor drugs alone have not been effective in BRAF mutant colorectal cancer patients, suggesting that improved approaches are needed. Dr.

Priscilla K. Brastianos, MD

Brain metastases are the most common tumor in the brain, most frequently originating from melanoma and carcinomas of the lung and breast. Of patients who develop brain metastases, approximately half succumb to the cancer in their brain. Unfortunately, treatment options are limited, and most current clinical trials in the US exclude patients with brain metastases. Dr. Brastianos recently completed a large study to understand the genetic changes that occur in brain metastases. She identified genetic alterations in brain metastases that predict sensitivity to targeted therapies.