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July 15, 2016

New York, NY (July 15, 2016) - The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation named seven new Damon Runyon Clinical Investigators at its spring 2016 Clinical Investigator Award Committee review. The recipients of this prestigious three-year award are outstanding early career physician-scientists conducting patient-oriented cancer research at major research centers under the mentorship of the nation’s leading scientists and clinicians. Each will receive $450,000 to support the development of his/her cancer research program.

The Foundation also awarded Continuation Grants to three Damon Runyon Clinical Investigators. Each award will provide an additional two years of funding totaling $300,000. The Continuation Grant is designed to support Clinical Investigators who are approaching the end of their original awards and need extra time and funding to complete a promising avenue of research or initiate/continue a clinical trial. This program is possible through the generous support of the William K. Bowes, Jr. Foundation.

“The quality of research being proposed by our new Clinical Investigators is exceptionally strong, and we are thrilled to be able to continue our proud tradition of funding first-rate early career physician-scientists conducting patient-oriented cancer research at many of our nation’s finest academic research institutions,” said Yung S. Lie, PhD, Deputy Director and Chief Scientific Officer at Damon Runyon. “It is deeply satisfying to know that today we are helping to launch the careers of tomorrow’s brightest cancer researchers.”

The Clinical Investigator Award program is specifically intended to help address the shortage of physicians capable of translating scientific discovery into new breakthroughs for cancer patients. Through partnerships with industry sponsors and its Accelerating Cancer Cures initiative, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation has committed nearly $56 million to support the careers of 88 physician-scientists across the United States since 2000.

2016 Damon Runyon Clinical Investigators

Vivek K. Arora, MD, PhD

Modern molecular characterization of tumors of the urinary bladder has illuminated cellular pathways that may be important for bladder cancer development. Dr. Arora is investigating the role played by a family of proteins called nuclear receptors in driving bladder cancer development and progression. These studies will provide insights into the fundamental basis of bladder cancer, while validating potential drug targets. Nuclear receptors are particularly attractive drug targets because they are highly amenable to modulation with drugs. He hopes to pave the way for the development of drugs to effectively target nuclear receptors in bladder cancer. Dr. Arora works under the mentorship of Lee Ratner, MD, PhD, at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Christopher E. Barbieri, MD, PhD [MetLife Foundation Clinical Investigator]

Prostate cancer is a clinically variable disease – some patients do well, while others do very poorly – and recent studies have shown clear molecular subtypes of prostate cancer that may explain this variability. Some subtypes of prostate cancer have underlying defects in repairing their DNA, making them potentially sensitive to therapies that exploit this deficiency. Dr. Barbieri is a surgeon scientist whose overall goal is to translate our understanding of the molecular basis of prostate cancer into near term benefits for patients. He will investigate the response to novel therapies for prostate cancer in patients undergoing surgical therapy for early stage disease, and define the genomic alterations that predict which cancers will be sensitive to these agents. Defining the response and the predictors of new agents in early, untreated prostate cancer will change the paradigm of how we treat men with the disease, allowing a precision medicine approach. Dr. Barbieri works under the mentorship of Mark A. Rubin, MD, at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, New York.

Ami S. Bhatt, MD, PhD

Chemotherapy and hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HCT) can cure otherwise deadly cancers such as leukemias and lymphomas. Unfortunately, there are many serious complications associated with these aggressive forms of therapy. A significant proportion of these complications have been associated with alterations in the microbiome - the bacteria, viruses and fungi that naturally live within and on us. Dr. Bhatt applies cutting-edge molecular, microbiology and computational biology approaches to understand how the microbiome may mediate these serious complications. In her bench-to-bedside and back research, the safety and effectiveness of live bacterial therapies (probiotics) will be explored. Dr. Bhatt works under the mentorship of Linda Boxer, MD, PhD, and Michael Snyder, PhD, at Stanford University in Stanford, California.

Jaehyuk Choi, MD, PhD [Doris Duke-Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator]

Cutaneous T cell lymphoma (CTCL) is an incurable cancer of the immune T cells in the skin. In advanced disease, the cells escape into the blood, the lymph nodes, and at times the visceral organs. Patients with advanced disease eventually succumb to a combination of tumor burden and disease-related immunosuppression. Dr. Choi has recently used next generation sequencing to identify gene mutations that he hypothesizes are important for CTCL pathogenesis. He will molecularly dissect how these gene mutations alter signaling pathways in CTCL, using human models and patient samples. His ultimate goal is to identify novel therapeutic strategies that selectively target CTCL cancer cells, hastening the development of a cure for this intractable disease. Dr. Choi works under the mentorship of Stephen D. Miller, PhD, and John D. Crispino, PhD, at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. He will be co-funded through a partnership with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through its 2016 Clinical Scientist Development Awards.

Alex Kentsis, MD, PhD [Richard Lumsden Foundation Clinical Investigator]

Dr. Kentsis focuses on the discovery and development of novel therapeutic strategies for patients with refractory cancers, with immediate emphasis on therapy-resistant acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Recent advances in genomic technology revealed a daunting complexity of genetic lesions in some cancers, and surprising dearth of gene mutations amenable to therapy in others. As a physician caring for children with hematologic and solid tumors, his goal is to accelerate advances in AML therapy, by developing functional genomic and proteomic technologies to determine the principal molecular lesions driving AML cells. Using preclinical models, he is defining the mechanisms by which aberrant signaling controls gene expression and therapy resistance in AML and testing therapeutic agents to block AML cell growth and survival. Dr. Kentsis works under the mentorship of Ross L. Levine, MD, and Scott A. Armstrong, MD, PhD, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, New York.

Geoffrey R. Oxnard, MD [Damon Runyon-Gordon Family Clinical Investigator]

Analysis of tumor DNA has transformed cancer care, allowing researchers to identify unique vulnerabilities within some cancers and treat them with highly effective, yet tolerable, targeted therapies. Moreover, emerging technologies now allow detection and analysis of tumor DNA which is circulating freely within the blood of cancer patients. Such “liquid biopsies” hold promise in their ability to accelerate the delivery of targeted therapies to appropriate cancer patients, while also allowing noninvasive monitoring of treatment outcome. Dr. Oxnard has recently developed a rapid noninvasive test for detection of tumor-derived DNA mutations in the blood of lung cancer patients, and has now launched this for clinical use at his institution. His research aims to validate that such liquid biopsies are ready for widespread adoption in guiding the care of lung cancer patients, while working to develop next generation assays that can comprehensively characterize cancer biology and identify the emergence of treatment resistance. Dr. Oxnard works under the mentorship of Pasi Janne, MD, PhD, at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts.

Heather L. Yeo, MD

The cost of gastrointestinal cancer care in older adults is high, and hospital readmission after major GI cancer surgery can be particularly costly. The Center for Medicare Services (CMS) estimates that around 75% of these readmissions are preventable. For these patients, early warning signs for dehydration, infection, or other complications, if noted earlier, would allow physicians to intervene and prevent readmission. Dr. Yeo, a surgeon, has worked with programmers from Cornell Tech Campus to develop a Mobile Application (iPhone or Android compatible) for patients undergoing abdominal cancer surgery. The app tracks patients’ mobility and prompts patients to input quantitative and qualitative data regarding pain, fluid status and dietary factors in order to allow physicians to intervene earlier as needed. She is currently piloting the app for feasibility and usability, and improving the user interface so that physicians can use the app to monitor and improve patient care. The next step is a prospective randomized study to evaluate the utility of this mobile app in the prevention of readmission, thus enhancing physician-patient interactions, decreasing costs and, most importantly, improving patient care. Dr. Yeo works under the mentorship of Manish A. Shah, MD, and Deborah Estrin, PhD, MS, at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, New York.

2016 Clinical Investigator Continuation Grants

Christine M. Lovly, MD, PhD

Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center, Nashville, Tennessee

Mentors:  Pierre M. Massion, MD, and David M. Carbone, MD, PhD (Ohio State University)

“Developing novel therapeutic strategies for ALK-fusion positive lung cancer”

Ann Mullally, MD

Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts

Mentors:  Benjamin L. Ebert, MD, and Jerome Ritz, MD

“Peptide vaccination to target mutant calreticulin in myeloproliferative neoplasms”

Deepak Nijhawan, MD, PhD

University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas Texas

Mentors:  Steve L. McKnight, PhD, and David H. Johnson, MD

“Developing the anti-tumor toxin CD437 into a new cancer therapy”

About the 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 $300 million and funded over 3,500 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. 


Yung S. Lie, PhD

Deputy Director and Chief Scientific Officer

Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation