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July 14, 2014

Grants totaling over $3.3M give early career investigators independence to pursue novel ideas

New York, NY (July 14, 2014)  – The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on supporting innovative early career researchers, named 16 new Damon Runyon Fellows at its spring Fellowship Award Committee review. The recipients of this prestigious, four-year award are outstanding postdoctoral scientists conducting basic and translational cancer research in the laboratories of leading senior investigators across the country. The Fellowship encourages the nation’s most promising young scientists to pursue careers in cancer research by providing them with independent funding ($208,000 each for basic scientists, $248,000 for physician-scientists) to work on innovative projects.

May 2014 Damon Runyon Fellows:

Caitlin A. Brennan, PhD [Dennis and Marsha Dammerman Fellow], with her sponsor Wendy S. Garrett, MD, PhD, at the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, studies colorectal cancer and its connection to the human microbiota- the collection of bacteria and other microbes associated with the body in both healthy and disease states. Her research will investigate how specific bacteria signal to both the immune system and other microbes in the development of colorectal cancer.

Dennis L. Buckley, PhD [Merck Fellow], with his sponsor James E. Bradner, MD, at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, aims to develop improved inhibitors of BET-bromodomain proteins for treatment of multiple cancers, such as NUT-midline carcinoma, acute leukemia, hematological malignancies and solid tumors. In addition, he will evaluate both novel and existing BET inhibitors in neuroblastoma. His goal is to chemically generate drugs with improved efficacy or lower side effects.

Casey A. Gifford, PhD [HHMI Fellow], with her sponsor Deepak Srivastava, MD, at the Gladstone Institutes, San Francisco, aims to define the roles for DNA-binding proteins that can manipulate DNA conformation in the nucleus. DNA is maintained in an ordered conformation that contributes to control of gene expression and cellular identity. She will employ next-generation sequencing approaches and human stem cells to better understand why the loss or aberrant expression of these DNA-binding proteins leads to cancer.

Keren I. Hilgendorf, PhD [Layton Family Fellow], with her sponsor Peter K. Jackson, PhD, at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, is exploring the role of primary cilia in regulating cell proliferation and differentiation. The primary cilium is an antenna-like cellular protrusion that is localized on the surface of most vertebrate cells and functions in chemo- and mechanosensation. In many cancers, primary cilia are lost, so cilia-mediated signaling pathways are deregulated.

Fuguo Jiang, PhD [Merck Fellow], with his sponsor Jennifer A. Doudna, PhD, at the University of California, Berkeley, is studying the CRISPR-Cas system, which has been adopted as a robust and versatile platform for genome engineering in human cells as well as other experimental systems. He aims to use a combination of biochemical and biophysical approaches to investigate the detailed molecular mechanism of RNA-guided DNA targeting and recognition by CRISPR-Cas9. The results of this research will provide a fundamental understanding of the Cas9 enzyme family and will support its use for gene therapies against cancers.

Avinash Khanna, PhD [Rebecca Ridley Kry Fellow], with his sponsor Matthew D. Shair, PhD, at Harvard University, Cambridge, studies a type of leukemia called mixed lineage leukemia (MLL), which often results in early relapse and a poor prognosis for the patient. Recently, it was found that inhibition of a protein called Mediator diminishes the ability of AML cancer cells to grow and proliferate. This research will use small molecules to elucidate the chemical biology of Mediator proteins.

Yin Liu, PhD [Layton Family Fellow], with her sponsor Mark A. Krasnow, MD, PhD, at Stanford University, Stanford, studies lung biology. The lung is innervated by diverse types of sensory neurons, collectively called pulmonary sensory neurons. These neurons detect a variety of physiological stimuli from the lung and inform the central nervous system about the state of the lung. Lung cancer, one of the most common cancers with a high rate of lethality, is associated with symptoms such as chronic cough, shortness of breath, and referred cranial facial pain. Her research will examine how pulmonary sensory neurons recognize and respond to lung tumors and mediate lung cancer-associated clinical symptoms.

Chao Lu, PhD [Kandarian Family Fellow], with his sponsor C. David Allis, PhD, at The Rockefeller University, New York, is studying histones, proteins that fold DNA into high-order structures, which is critical for proper gene expression. Mutations in histones are mutated in certain types of pediatric brain tumors and sarcomas, including a rare bone cancer called chondroblastoma. He aims to understand the biochemical and molecular mechanisms by which histone proteins function and how they are perturbed in tumor cells.

Timothy D. Martin, PhD [Marion Abbe Fellow], with his sponsor Stephen J. Elledge, PhD, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, focuses on genomic instability, a hallmark of virtually all cancers that underlies the mutations and aneuploidy (incorrect chromosome number) changes that perturb oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes (TSGs). Patient tumor sequencing has unveiled common genomic alterations across different cancers. The goal of this project is to precisely recreate these genomic alterations and directly test how each contributes to oncogenesis.

Mandy M. Muller, PhD [HHMI Fellow], with her sponsor Britt Glaunsinger, PhD, at the University of California, Berkeley, is examining Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus (KSHV), a virus associated with lifelong infections. A healthy immune system keeps the virus in check; however, in immunocompromised individuals, KSHV is associated with a number of malignances, including Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS). KSHV dramatically manipulates the intracellular gene expression environment of its host cell. The defining characteristic is a near-global depletion of cytoplasmic mRNA called “host shutoff.” The goal of this research is to mechanistically delineate how the virus hijacks host factors to dampen gene expression in the cell.

Duy P. Nguyen, PhD [Connie and Bob Lurie Fellow], with his sponsor James A. Wells, PhD, at the University of California, San Francisco, is analyzing the bacterial enzyme Cas9, which has emerged to be a versatile tool to manipulate the genome. He aims to develop an efficient method for selective delivery to and activation of Cas9 in cancer cells. The developed methodology will hopefully set the foundation for rapidly creating genetic models to interrogate signaling pathways implicated in cancer and to investigate novel drug screening approaches that identify new drug targets for cancer treatment.

Neel H. Shah, PhD, with his sponsor John Kuriyan, PhD, at the University of California, Berkeley, aims to elucidate structural details of the signaling enzyme ZAP-70, found primarily in immune T cells. Expression of ZAP-70 in other immune cells, B cells, however, is associated with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Furthermore, loss of ZAP-70 function causes severe combined immunodeficiency; an impaired immune system can increase a patient’s susceptibility to tumor development. His research on ZAP-70 structure and function will help lay the groundwork for the development of ZAP-70-specific therapeutics.

Hume Akahori Stroud, PhD [HHMI Fellow], with his sponsor Michael E. Greenberg, PhD, at Harvard Medical School, Boston, is examining the distinct role of MeCP2, a protein that binds methyl-CpG-DNA and regulates neuronal chromatin, which “packages” DNA. The proposed research has significant implications for causes and mechanisms of cancer, as dysregulation of DNA methylation and other chromatin modifications represent early oncogenic events in a wide range of human cancers.

Tony Yu-Chen Tsai, PhD, MD [Kenneth G. and Elaine A. Langone Fellow], with his sponsor Sean G. Megason, PhD, at Harvard Medical School, Boston, seeks to understand how the signaling pathway directed by the protein Sonic Hedgehog (Shh) regulates cell-cell adhesion molecules required for correct spatial organization of the neuro-epithelium. Abnormal Shh signaling is associated with several types of cancer, and aberrant regulation of cell-cell adhesion could lead to tumor metastasis. His findings may ultimately lead to understanding and prevention of metastasis in Shh-associated cancers.

Daniel E. Webster, PhD, with his sponsor Louis M. Staudt, MD, PhD, at the National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, studies Diffuse Large B Cell Lymphoma (DLBCL), an aggressive cancer that hijacks the normal molecular mechanisms acting in immune B cells to drive malignant growth. Many genes have been studied as oncogenes or tumor suppressors in DLBCL, but a class of long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) remains largely unexplored for its function in this cancer. LncRNAs, once thought to be non-functional products of junk DNA, are now known to play an essential role in many biological processes. This research will discover oncogenic or tumor suppressive lncRNAs in DLBCL to uncover potential targets for cancer diagnosis or therapy.

Sungwook Woo, PhD [HHMI Fellow], with his sponsor Peng Yin, PhD, at Harvard University, Cambridge, is using protein structures to illustrate the mechanisms of cancer-related processes. His research aims to overcome limitations of current techniques by using recent breakthroughs in “programmable DNA self-assembly” to develop protein framework structures. If successful, his efforts will provide a general tool for structural biology and in turn benefit the mechanistic studies and therapeutic development for cancer.



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, Damon Runyon has invested nearly $275 million and funded more than 3,420 young scientists. This year, it will commit over $16 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


Yung S. Lie, PhD

Deputy Director and Chief Scientific Officer

Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation