Damon Runyon News

May 23, 2017

To make breakthroughs against cancer, we need scientists willing to break the mold and push science in new directions.  That is the goal of our Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award.  We seek the top emerging talent in cancer research and provide seed funding for their new ideas.

In 2015, we selected a new Innovator at UC Berkeley, Roberto Zoncu, followed the next year by one at UCSF, Rushika Perera.  Little did we know that they were married to each other. As they tell it, rather than Match.com, they had “bench.com.”  They met working side-by-side at a laboratory bench at Yale University, spent some time as a bi-coastal couple, and now are building their own labs across the bay from each other.

They both study lysosomes, a structure or “organelle” inside cells.  It has recently been discovered that lysosomes play a surprising role in enabling cancer. Rushika studies how changes in lysosome function contribute to pancreatic cancer cell survival in primary tumors, metastases and following treatment relapse.  Roberto’s focus is on the lysosome as a “metabolic signaling center” that senses cellular nutrient levels and communicates them to a growth regulator protein called mTORC1. 

We recently sat down with Rushika and Roberto to discuss their research goals, the importance of funding junior scientists and how a power scientist couple spends their Saturdays.


What do you hope to achieve with your Damon Runyon Innovation Award and how is your work progressing? 

RUSHIKA:  I’ve spent seven years studying pancreatic cancer, looking at how a tumor begins, how it evolves and how it responds to therapy. The potential impact of our work will be the ability to offer targeted therapies to pancreatic cancer patients. 

ROBERTO:  I’m investigating how lysosome signaling changes the function of the lysosome and another organelle, the mitochondria, in cancer cells, providing them with the ability to survive starvation, lack of oxygen and chemotherapy.  The potential impact of our work is to turn what we’re leaning into drug discovery platforms that lead to better patient treatment options. 

How does the Innovation Award help your research?

ROBERTO: It provides funding for my riskiest research.  We are engineering an approach to understand cell function – developing new techniques for how to take a cell apart and put it back together again.

RUSHIKA:  The research funding climate is very challenging.  As a junior faculty member, it can be hard to convince others to fund your new ideas.  Often, it’s the nonprofit organizations like Damon Runyon that are willing to take risks on young investigators with non-traditional ideas that will push the field forward in a big way.

Talk about the basic research and why it’s important.

ROBERTO: Science is unpredictable.  You must have an open mind.  You may have a hypothesis but one result can change the path.  Look at the discovery of CRISPR/cas9 technology (a revolutionary gene editing tool).  That began with a bacterial geneticist looking at “weird” bacteria in the salt marshes along the coast of Spain.

RUSHIKA:  That unpredictability makes science exciting.

What drew you to research and what motivates you today?

RUSHIKA:  I credit great mentors who introduced me to fundamental concepts in cellular organization and cancer biology. Today, the people in my lab, the patients and donors motivate me.

ROBERTO:  Both my parents were doctors. I was interested in science and wanted a less expected career path.  Running a lab is fun. Mentoring people. Collaborating. The current pace of cancer research is motivating. We want to be a part of that.

How does it feel to be married to a scientist working in a similar field?

RUSHIKA:  We have been each other’s #1 fan and supporter. We encourage each other to take that leap, do that experiment.

ROBERTO:  We also have a mutual understanding of the sacrifices science requires.  We spend Saturdays first in Rushika’s lab and then head over to mine at Berkeley.

What would you be doing if not science?

ROBERTO:  I’d be an astronaut.

RUSHIKA:  Science was always my favorite subject. I had to decide between science and medicine. I chose science because it’s creative, flexible and has impact. I think it’s one of the best jobs in the world.