Damon Runyon News

October 30, 2019

The Damon Runyon-Jake Wetchler Award for Pediatric Innovation is given annually to a third-year Damon Runyon Fellow whose research has the greatest potential to impact the prevention, diagnosis or treatment of pediatric cancer. Marissa Rashkovan, PhD, a Damon Runyon-Sohn Pediatric Cancer Fellow at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, received this special award at the annual Fellows' Retreat.

Dr. Rashkovan's life-long ambition to find a cure for cancer began at age 14 when her mother was diagnosed with stage 3 follicular B cell lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. "I didn’t want anyone else to experience what we went through. I wanted to help as many people as I could,” she says. She is studying T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL), an aggressive blood cancer that accounts for 10-15% of pediatric and 25% of adult ALL cases. She has found a unique metabolic profile for a subtype of T ALL cells that are especially difficult to treat and have a higher likelihood of early relapse. Patients with this cancer have survival rates around 13%, and children who do survive face significant side effects later in life from the intense chemotherapy regimens.

Her research focuses on identifying cancer cell-specific pathways that can be targeted for treatment of these high-risk leukemia patients with poor prognosis. She is also screening FDA-approved drugs to find candidates that may act on these cancer cells, an approach that takes advantage of using compounds with established safety profiles. Her innovative approach is advancing important science and holds promise for better and safer treatments for a high-risk pediatric cancer.

The Jake Wetchler Foundation was established in honor of Jake, who beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 18, but then lost his life to leukemia at age 20 after a heroic fight. “Losing a child to cancer is pretty much the worst thing that can happen in your life. And when that happens, you try to do things to honor the memory of your child,” explains Jean I. Singer, Founder of Foundation and Jake's mother. “Jake would often say to us, ‘Don’t let the cancer win,’ and by funding brilliant, innovative scientists, we hope to someday beat cancer.