Damon Runyon News

October 20, 2023

Each year, the Damon Runyon-Jake Wetchler Award for Pediatric Innovation is given to a third-year Damon Runyon Fellow whose research has the greatest potential to impact the prevention, diagnosis, or treatment of pediatric cancer. This year, the award recognizes the work of Qinheng Zheng, PhD, a Damon Runyon-Connie and Bob Lurie Fellow at the University of California, San Francisco.

Qinheng Zheng, PhD

Dr. Zheng is developing small molecules that can inhibit a protein called KRAS, the most frequently mutated protein across all cancers. Until recently, KRAS was considered an “undruggable” target due to an apparent lack of binding sites on its surface. In 2021, the first KRAS inhibitor was approved for the treatment of lung cancer, but none have yet been approved for the treatment of other common KRAS-mutated cancers, including pancreatic cancer and pediatric leukemia.

Jake Wetchler

The Jake Wetchler Foundation was established in honor of Jake, who survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 18, but then lost his life to leukemia at age 20. Jake’s philosophical bent and determination live on in the impact of the award that carries his name. “Jake would often say to us, ‘Don’t let the cancer win,’” says Jean Singer, Jake's mother and the Founder of the Foundation. “By funding brilliant, innovative scientists, we hope to someday beat cancer. Pediatric research in particular is consistently shortchanged in research funding. We live in an age of unprecedented technology and scientific promise—now is the time to harness these advances in the fight against pediatric cancer.”

“The story of Jake Wetchler inspired me to research how the compound we’ve developed could be used for childhood leukemia,” says Dr. Zheng. “As we conduct some translational work to push our compound to preclinical or clinical trial for adult cancers, we strongly encourage our collaborators to look into its therapeutic indications for pediatric cancers. I think it could make a huge impact.”

The presentation of the 2023 Jake Wetchler Award: