All Cancers

Current Projects
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cells mature (differentiate) into normal cells; however, this process is entirely reversible once the retinoic acid is withdrawn.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
Wen Mai Wong, PhD

Multiple cancers, including prostate, breast, and gastrointestinal cancers, are known to be heavily innervated. However, the role of neurons and their signaling within the tumor microenvironment remains unknown. Previous work has shown that transecting the vagus nerve can block the progression of gastric cancer, emphasizing a critical role for the vagal neurons in this disease. However, these transections produce side effects, making it a difficult strategy to translate to the clinic. Dr. Wong [Kenneth G. and Elaine A. Langone Fellow] is proposing a new method to non-invasively silence neurons within the body. Specifically, she will use ultrasound to silence specific neurons in rodent models in order to determine the impact of these neurons on animal behavior and disease physiology, including the tumor microenvironment. Dr. Wong received her PhD from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and her BS from St. Mary’s University.

Project title: "Modulation of neuronal circuitry using sonogenetics"
Institution: The Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Named Award: Kenneth G. and Elaine A. Langone Fellow
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Sreekanth H. Chalasani, PhD
Cancer Type: All Cancers
Research Area: Neuroscience
Xiaoyu Zhang, PhD

Dr. Zhang is developing small molecules that promote targeted protein degradation in human cancers. Conventional small molecule anticancer drugs act by directly inhibiting the functions of proteins. Although targeted cancer therapies have been successful in recent years, many oncogenic proteins are still considered “undruggable” because the conventional drug design strategy fails to interfere with these proteins. One way to target “undruggable” oncogenic proteins may be to create a new type of small molecule that delivers these proteins to the cellular degradation system, thereby promoting their destruction. By integrating chemical tools, proteomic platforms, and molecular biology approaches, Dr. Zhang aims to develop protein degraders as a new drug modality to expand treatment opportunities in human cancer.

Project title: “Discovery of chemical probes that support targeted protein degradation in human cancer”
Institution: Northwestern University
Award Program: Dale Frey Scientist
Cancer Type: All Cancers
Research Area: Chemical Biology
Juner Zhang, PhD

In cells, DNA wraps around a protein complex consisting of proteins called histones. Chemical modifications to histones can affect gene expression, which is key to activating or suppressing cancer progression. Histone monoaminylation, in which an amine (e.g., serotonin, dopamine, or histamine) attaches itself to a histone, is a newfound type of epigenetic modification whose role remains elusive in these processes. Dr. Zhang is using chemical biology tools to study the functions of these modifications as well as their effects on other adjacent, pre-existing cancer-associated modifications. This research may establish a foundation for how this epigenetic modification regulates gene expression and offer insight into the role of amines in the progression of cancer and human neurodegenerative disorders. Dr. Zhang received his PhD from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena and his BS from Tsinghua University, Beijing.

Project title: "The role of histone H2A.Z monoaminylation in transcription regulation"
Institution: Princeton University
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Tom W. Muir, PhD
Cancer Type: All Cancers
Research Area: Chemical Biology
Yunxiao Zhang, PhD

Dr. Zhang [Merck Fellow] aims to address what information is sensed and relayed by sensory nerve fibers within the pancreas. Internal organs receive sensory nerve fibers that constantly monitor their conditions but the exact mechanism for this type of sensation is understudied. As an organ that is instrumental to blood glucose regulation and food digestion, the pancreas receives a host of different sensory nerve fibers, but the information conveyed by these fibers and their function are still yet to be precisely defined. Interaction between sensory nerve fibers and the pancreas enables rapid detection of changes in metabolic states and may constitute an important feedback mechanism complementary to the well-defined humoral regulation. Local sensory fibers are also involved in cancer progression and decoding of the sensory information would facilitate early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Project title: "Sensory innervation of the pancreas"
Institution: The Scripps Research Institute
Named Award: Merck Fellow
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Ardem Patapoutian, PhD
Cancer Type: All Cancers
Research Area: Animal Models/Mouse Models
Zeda Zhang, PhD

On the cellular level, aging manifests as cellular senescence—when cells permanently stop multiplying but do not die. Aberrant accumulation of senescent cells is thought to be a major contributor to age-dependent tissue degeneration and its associated pathologies. Elimination of senescent cells has been shown to improve age-associated tissue damage pathologies and extend healthy lifespan in mice. Senescent cells undergo extensive remodeling on their surface, including increased production of many surface proteins. Dr. Zhang [HHMI Fellow] is using a quantitative proteomics approach to investigate the mechanisms and biological consequences of cell surface remodeling in senescent cells. His goal is to identify new therapeutic targets on the senescent cell surface and develop next-generation chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells and antibodies to evaluate their impact on age-related diseases. Success with this approach may have a transformative impact on treating life-threatening diseases like cancer, fibrosis, and atherosclerosis. Dr. Zhang received his PhD from Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School and his BS from Sun Yat-Sen University.

Project title: "Decode the senescent cell surface in vivo and develop cell therapies for senescence-related diseases"
Institution: Memorial Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research
Named Award: HHMI Fellow
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Scott W. Lowe, PhD
Cancer Type: All Cancers
Research Area: Aging
Xin Zhou, PhD

Antibodies, vaccines, checkpoint inhibitors, and CAR-T cells have all been successful in leveraging the immune system against disease, but these treatment strategies still have limitations. Dr. Zhou is designing new macromolecules to direct the immune response to cancer. She plans to engineer dynamic, functional proteins that respond to specific protein post-translational modifications, conformations, or complexes. She hypothesizes that these conditionally activated proteins will be able to recognize cancer-specific antigens, drive protein-protein or protein-substrate interactions, or help build synthetic cell signaling pathways, and therefore can be harnessed to enact specific anti-tumor responses.

Project title: “Designing signaling proteins to enact anti-tumor responses"
Institution: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute / Harvard Medical School
Award Program: Dale Frey Scientist
Cancer Type: All Cancers
Research Area: Chemical Biology
Ronghui Zhu, PhD

Our immune system can help us prevent or slow cancer development. Human CD4+ T cells play critical roles in regulating our immune responses to fight cancer. Upon encountering a pathogen, naïve CD4+ T cells differentiate into different T helper (Th) cells to perform diverse immune-modulatory functions. Variability in this differentiation process is associated with variable responses to cancer immunotherapy. While several genes necessary for differentiation have been identified, researchers lack a comprehensive map and a predictive model of the larger gene regulatory network (GRN) controlling this process. Dr. Zhu [Connie and Bob Lurie Fellow] plans to combine functional genomics with mathematical modeling to systematically map and model the human CD4+ T cell differentiation GRN and use the GRN model to predict and control the differentiation process. His work promises to provide a quantitative understanding of the CD4+ T cell differentiation process and open up new strategies for safer and more effective cell-based cancer therapy. Dr. Zhu received his PhD from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena and his BS from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong.

Project title: "Mapping and modeling the human CD4+ T cell differentiation gene regulatory network"
Institution: Gladstone Institutes
Named Award: Connie and Bob Lurie Fellow
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Alexander Marson, MD, PhD and Jonathan K. Pritchard, PhD
Cancer Type: All Cancers
Research Area: Systems Biology
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