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January 21, 2014

Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation awards $2.25M to six innovative young scientists 

New York, NY (January 21, 2014) – The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, announced that six scientists with novel approaches to fighting cancer have been named 2014 recipients of the Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award.  The grant of $450,000 over three years is awarded each year to early career scientists whose projects have the potential to significantly impact the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. 

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.  At the final stage of selection, candidates are screened by an in-person interview with committee members.  Only those scientists with a strong 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.

Emily P. Balskus, PhD

Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Humans live in symbiosis with trillions of microbes, and there is growing evidence that these organisms can impact the development and progression of cancer.

Dr. Balskus’ research seeks to elucidate the mechanisms by which molecules produced by microbes inhabiting the human gut influence the development and progression of colorectal cancer. She will combine tools from synthetic chemistry, biochemistry, and microbiology to both characterize and block harmful microbial processes. This work will impact our understanding of how the gut environment influences carcinogenesis, ultimately leading to new strategies for cancer prevention and treatment.

Arvin C. Dar, PhD

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, New York

Genes that are mutated, amplified, or altered in cancer contribute directly to tumor development, maintenance, and metastasis. The Ras-MAPK signaling pathway contains two of the most frequently altered genes across all cancers. Ras-MAPK has important roles in normal development but is also commonly dysregulated in a variety of human cancers. The biochemistry of this pathway is highly complex, thus hampering drug development efforts and resulting in the inability to develop any drug that directly targets Ras-MAPK to date.

Dr. Dar is using two novel approaches to better understand the Ras-MAPK pathway. First, he is reconstructing the pathway from its individual parts, much like an engineer will construct a circuit from relatively simple components. Second, he is developing chemical tools that can perturb functional Ras-MAPK networks in the cell. Both approaches will allow him to investigate questions about how this network functions and how its dysregulation contributes to disease. Ultimately, his goal is to create new drugs that precisely disable the Ras-MAPK pathway in cancer.

Summer L. Gibbs, PhD and Xiaolin Nan, PhD

Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Oregon

Understanding molecular function in biological settings is essential for successful development of targeted therapies for cancer. Advances in biochemical profiling techniques have generated lists of molecules involved in cancer development and progression, but the mechanisms by which these molecules work together within cells and tumors remain largely unclear. Molecularly targeted cancer therapeutics based on incomplete understanding of the tumorigenic mechanisms often demonstrate initial response followed by cancer resistance.

Drs. Gibbs and Nan, both biochemical engineers, will work as a team to address this problem using a revolutionary high-resolution microscopy technique to visualize—at the molecular level—the interactions of an array of proteins involved in the HER2 cell signaling pathway implicated in breast cancer within tumor cells, and their response to therapeutic agents such as Herceptin. They anticipate the findings of this work will significantly improve our understanding of the spatial and temporal organization of cancer cell signaling, enabling development of more effective targeted cancer therapeutics with lasting response.

Moritz F. Kircher, MD, PhD

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, New York

Dr. Kircher’s goal is to develop a new nanoparticle-based technology that will allow the detection and treatment of cancer based on in vivo tumor marker expression profiling. This would enable a single cancer cell to be both imaged and killed in a single process. To date this has not been achieved, in part due to inadequate sensitivity and inability to accurately visualize the expression of multiple tumor markers simultaneously.

A radiologist by training, he has developed a new generation of Raman-MRI nanoparticles, resulting in unprecedented sensitivity and targeted signal specificity. He will work with prostate, pancreatic and breast cancer tumors to develop markers that can be targeted by these nanoparticles. If successful, this approach will have far-reaching implications for cancer detection and image-guided therapy.

Eirini Papapetrou, MD, PhD

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, New York

Dr. Papapetrou studies a disease called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which often progresses to leukemia. She is using a novel approach to identify the specific genetic alterations involved in the development of MDS, which are not currently known.

She aims to understand how tumor suppressor genes can promote cancer through a type of genetic state called “haploinsufficiency.” By reprogramming human pluripotent stem cells to harbor specific deletions in their chromosomes, she seeks to characterize novel genetic causes of MDS. This approach could be a model for uncovering genetic mechanisms of other cancers as well.



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 more than $270 million and funded more than 3,400 young scientists. This year, it will commit approximately $12 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

Chief Scientific Officer

Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation