All Cancers

Current Projects
Jung-Shen Benny Tai, PhD

Dr. Tai studies bacterial biofilms or aggregates of bacterial cells in an extracellular matrix. Biofilms play a critical role in many health and industry settings. Biofilm-forming bacteria and imbalance in patients’ gut microbiota have been found to correlate with cancer development, and cancer patients receiving therapy frequently suffer from bacterial infections. From the unique perspectives of microbiology, soft matter physics, and ecology, Dr. Tai aims to decipher how, at the single bacteria cell level, heterogeneities in cell shape, organization, and gene expression constitute the function and development of their collective communities: biofilms. His work is expected to deepen our understanding of bacterial biofilms and ultimately contribute to therapeutic strategies.

Project title: "From form to function: Cell shape, cell ordering, and gene regulation in bacterial biofilm"
Institution: Yale University / Michigan State University
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Jing Yan, PhD (Yale University), and Christopher Waters, PhD (Michigan State University)
Cancer Type: All Cancers
Research Area: Microbiology
Akanksha Thawani, PhD

Dr. Thawani [Merck Fellow] studies selfish DNA sequences—so called because they copy and paste themselves within the human genome despite offering no specific fitness advantage. Dr. Thawani will utilize advanced methods such as cryo-electron microscopy to reveal the cellular machinery that assists these selfish elements and thus delineate their mechanism of mobility. She will use this insight to engineer new genome editing technologies to precisely insert large genes at user-specified sites in a variety of human cell types. This general technology will not only translate directly into new gene therapies, but also result in wide-ranging applications in synthetic biology. Ultimately, this work will contribute to treatment for many cancer types, including improved CAR-T therapies for blood cancers.

Project title: "Targeted genetic supplementation by harnessing transposable elements"
Institution: University of California, Berkeley
Named Award: Merck Fellow
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Eva Nogales, PhD, and Kathleen Collins, PhD
Cancer Type: All Cancers
Research Area: RNA (RNA processing, miRNA and piRNA mechanisms, enzymatic RNAs, etc.)
Erron W. Titus, MD, PhD

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells are immune cells that have been genetically engineered to bind specific proteins on cancer cells. CARs can display exquisite sensitivity and discrimination, and CAR T cells have been deployed with spectacular success to detect and kill blood cancers. Unfortunately, they are much less effective against “solid” tumors, such as breast or kidney cancers. To address this problem, Dr. Titus [Connie and Bob Lurie Fellow] is designing T cells with membrane proteins that perform novel functions, including proteins that facilitate membrane fusion or alter the adhesion between T cells and their targets. By redesigning T cell membranes, Dr. Titus hopes to create useful cancer-fighting tools that can be deployed in conjunction with other emerging cellular therapies and immunotherapies. Dr. Titus received his MD and PhD from the University of California, San Francisco, and his AB from Harvard University.

Project title: "Engineered cellular fusogens for novel immune effector functions"
Institution: University of California, San Francisco
Named Award: Connie and Bob Lurie Fellow
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Matthew F. Krummel, PhD
Cancer Type: All Cancers
Research Area: Immunotherapy
Catherine Triandafillou, PhD

One of the tools cancer cells employ to evade immune system detection is an increased DNA mutation rate, with some cancers mutating 100-1000 times faster than healthy tissue. Classic studies of the effects of mutations predict that most genetic changes are deleterious, yet high mutation rates appear to help cancer cells adapt and invade. Dr. Triandafillou [National Mah Jongg League Fellow] will address this paradox by using a single-cell model of cancer to measure the effects of mutations with much greater accuracy and resolution than is possible in live cancer cells. This information will help us understand how cancer cells balance deleterious mutations with the ability to adapt, and how the effects of mutations interact. She will also perform laboratory evolution experiments to track the adaptive process in different environmental conditions, mimicking the process by which cancer cells are able to colonize new micro-environments within tumors and throughout the body. This work will provide a clearer picture of how cancer cells use new mutations to proliferate. Dr. Triandafillou received her PhD from the University of Chicago and her BS from Temple University.

Project title: "Intrinsic and extrinsic drivers of heterogeneous drug resistance in cancer"
Institution: University of Pennsylvania
Named Award: National Mah Jongg League Fellow
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Arjun Raj, PhD
Cancer Type: Colorectal, Skin, All Cancers
Research Area: Evolution
Gokhan Unlu, PhD

Dr. Unlu studies how cancer cells adapt to nutrient limitations in their environment. High metabolic demands of proliferating cancer cells create metabolic bottlenecks for in vivo growth within solid tumors. Dietary and pharmacological interventions could provide unique opportunities to target such metabolic liabilities. However, studying tumor metabolism in vivo adds many layers of biological complexity, meaning these potential targets are currently poorly characterized. Dr. Unlu plans to combine metabolomics approaches and functional CRISPR screens to systematically identify metabolites limiting for in vivo tumor growth and metastasis.

Project title: "Targeting cancer nutrient limitations using dietary interventions"
Institution: The Rockefeller University
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Kivanç Birsoy, PhD
Cancer Type: Pancreatic, All Cancers
Research Area: Metabolism
Srinivas R. Viswanathan, MD, PhD

Epidemiologic studies have revealed that many cancer types display differences in incidence or outcomes between the sexes. In most cases, these differences are only partially explained by non-genetic factors such as hormonal differences, carcinogen exposure, lifestyle, and access to health care. Our understanding of how genetic factors contribute to differences in cancer incidence between the sexes remains incomplete. A fundamental genetic difference between the sexes is in chromosome composition. Relative to male somatic cells, female somatic cells have an extra X chromosome. Most genes on the second copy of chromosome X in females are inactivated via a process known as X-chromosome inactivation, which approximately equalizes the dosage of X-linked genes between males and females. Dr. Viswanathan's project tests the hypothesis that genetic alterations to the X chromosome in cancer may perturb this carefully regulated process and thereby contribute to differences in cancer incidence or pathogenic mechanisms between males and females.

Project title: "X marks the spot: exploring how X-chromosome alterations drive sex differences in cancer"
Institution: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Award Program: Innovator
Cancer Type: Kidney and Bladder, All Cancers
Research Area: Cancer Genetics
Lexy von Diezmann, PhD

Dr. von Diezmann is a biophysicist who studies how cells regulate the pathway used to repair broken DNA. Errors in specific DNA repair pathways are an early step in the development of many cancers, such as with defects in homologous recombination for breast, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers. The Diezmann lab uses high-resolution microscopy techniques to visualize the process by which DNA breaks are designated for specific repair fates, working primarily in live meiotic nuclei of the model organism C. elegans. By elucidating the mechanisms by which protein assemblies form and transmit information along chromosomes and throughout the nucleus, her lab will help provide a foundation for the development of novel chemotherapies based on modulating the DNA damage response.

Project title: "Single-molecule dynamics of DNA repair assemblies in live cells"
Institution: University of Minnesota
Award Program: Dale Frey Scientist
Cancer Type: Pancreatic, All Cancers
Research Area: Chromosome and Telomere Biology
McLane Watson, PhD

Cancer immunotherapy has revolutionized the way we treat cancer; however, it is only successful in a small subset of patients. Optimally functioning CD8 T cells, the specialized killers of the immune system, are key to the success of cancer immunotherapies. While CD8 T cell function is highly influenced by their metabolism, little is understood about how metabolism changes the function of these cells. Dr. Watson hypothesizes that metabolism affects CD8 T cell function by altering how tightly its DNA is packaged (its epigenetics), leading to altered gene expression. Using a mouse model of adoptive T cell therapy, a widely used immunotherapy in humans, and epigenetic techniques, Dr. Watson proposes to uncover how metabolism influences CD8 T cell epigenetic landscapes to control their function. He plans to apply these findings to improve T cell function and enhance tumor clearance. Dr. Watson received his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh and his BS from Hope College, Holland, Michigan.


Project title: "Understanding CD8 T cell epigenetic changes fueled by S-adenosylmethionine metabolism for improved adoptive cell therapy"
Institution: Van Andel Institute
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Russell G. Jones, PhD
Cancer Type: Skin, All Cancers
Research Area: Basic Immunology
Nina Weichert-Leahey, MD

Neuroblastoma is a rare pediatric cancer that typically arises in the adrenal glands, located above the kidney. Children with high-risk neuroblastoma often have poor prognoses despite intense treatment-including maintenance treatment with retinoic acid-underscoring the need for new treatments to improve long-term outcomes. Retinoic acid, which is orally available and generally well tolerated, helps neuroblastoma cells mature (differentiate) into normal cells; however, this process is entirely reversible once the retinoic acid is withdrawn. If this differentiating effect could be made permanent with the addition of a second drug, a combination treatment with retinoic acid could become a novel method of preventing patient relapse. After testing a panel of 452 small molecule drugs, Dr. Weichert-Leahey discovered that a drug called PF-9363 accentuated the effects of retinoic acid in neuroblastoma the most. She will now study how PF-9363 functions, alone and together with retinoic acid, both in cells and patient-derived neuroblastoma models in mice. These experiments will indicate whether combinations of this new compound with retinoic acid may improve outcomes for children with high-risk neuroblastoma.

Project title: "Elucidating the role of KAT6A and KAT6B in the epigenetic reprogramming of neuroblastoma to enforce neuronal differentiation"
Institution: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Award Program: Physician-Scientist
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): A. Thomas Look, MD
Cancer Type: All Cancers
Research Area: Epigenetics
Patrick Woida, PhD

Dr. Woida studies the foodborne pathogens Listeria monocytogenes and Shigella flexneri that enter and replicate within human cells. These bacteria also directly infect neighboring cells by pushing against the host cell membrane to form long membrane protrusions that extend and eventually release the bacteria into the new cell. This process of cell-to-cell spread requires the bacteria to hijack intercellular signaling pathways to reshape the host cell membrane. These signaling pathways normally regulate human cell adhesion and motility, and their dysregulation promotes tumor growth and metastasis. Dr. Woida’s goal is to uncover the unique mechanisms by which these pathogens remodel the host cell membrane to gain insight into how the co-opted intercellular signaling pathways function under both healthy conditions and tumor progression. Dr. Woida received his PhD from Northwestern University and his BS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Project title: "Functional dissection of the bacterial-host interface during cell-to-cell spread"
Institution: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Rebecca Lamason, PhD
Cancer Type: All Cancers
Research Area: Microbiology
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