New Discoveries and Honors

Read about the latest discoveries by Damon Runyon scientists and honors received by scientists in the Damon Runyon scientific community.

May 25, 2018

Researchers have long been aware that several viruses have an innate ability to kill cancer cells. Dmitriy Zamarin, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ’13-’16) and Jedd D. Wolchok, MD, PhD (Clinical Investigator ’03-08) both at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, are combining that observation with currently approved cancer immunotherapies to deliver a "one-two punch" against cancer in clinical trials. The researchers have injected a non-pathogenic Newcastle Disease Virus (NDV) into a tumor, triggering a powerful, widespread immune response that kills cancer cells not only in the tumor, but also outside the virus-infected region. In combination with checkpoint inhibitors that unleash the immune system’s full cancer-fighting power, they have shown that the treatment can overcome and even prevent immunotherapy resistance in mice. Positive results in patients may help expand the use of immunotherapies to a broader range of cancers, including solid tumors. These findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.


 


May 23, 2018

Five Damon Runyon alumni are among the 19 individuals named Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators this week. These scientists were selected because they ask hard questions in uncharted territories of biology and have the potential to make breakthroughs that will benefit humanity. The appointment provides flexible funding of $8 million over a seven-year term for each scientist, enabling them to pursue provocative fundamental questions of critical importance to biomedical progress.

“We are delighted that our alumni are being recognized for their significant accomplishments and their promise to make future advances in healthcare. This is a testament to our strategy to foster the next generation of leaders while they are just venturing out into the research world with their bold, risky ideas,” said Lorraine Egan, President and CEO, Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

Meet our distinguished alumni:

Thomas Bernhardt, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘02-‘03) at Harvard Medical School, is focusing on how bacteria build their cell wall in order to grow and divide. Understanding the mechanisms of bacterial cell wall synthesis has critical implications for human disease and health—including new targets to combat drug-resistant infections. 

Howard Chang, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Scholar ’06-’08) at Stanford University, is probing the mystery of a class of genes called long noncoding RNAs, which are pervasive in the human genome, but do not produce proteins like normal genes. Long noncoding RNAs are now known to be important in cancer and other human diseases, as well as development and aging.

Ralph DeBerardinis, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator ‘11-‘14) of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, studies the metabolic pathways used by a cell to grow, develop, and expend energy. Understanding what goes wrong in these pathways when cancer and other diseases develop will lead to therapeutic agents that selectively target tumors, stopping their growth, while leaving metabolism in the rest of the body undisturbed.

Elizabeth Sattely, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘08-‘10) at Stanford University, is developing plants that can produce lifesaving drugs and building stronger plants along the way. Her lab engineered a common tobacco plant to produce a chemical that is used to create etoposide, a chemotherapy drug that treats various forms of cancer. This is potentially a less expensive and more efficient way of producing the vital drug.

Feng Zhang (Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovator ‘12-‘14) of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, is a leader in developing genome editing technologies, including CRISPR. His tools are being used globally to modify DNA for a wide range of applications, from improving crops to studying disease. The hope is genetic errors in patients’ cells will be corrected to treat disease someday.


May 3, 2018

Maria Mihaylova, PhD (Former Damon Runyon Fellow ‘13-’16) of the Whitehead Institute and MIT’s Koch Institute, Cambridge, has found benefits of intermittent fasting beyond weight loss. The researchers discovered that fasting for 24 hours dramatically improves stem cells’ ability to regenerate in the intestines of aged and young mice. When an injury or infection occurs, stem cells are key to repairing damage. This finding may help patients who suffer from GI infections or cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. The researchers are now investigating compounds that will mimic the effect of fasting. These findings were published in the journal Cell Stem Cell. 


May 1, 2018

Two Damon Runyon alumni were elected to the National Academy of Sciences (the science “Hall of Fame”), one of the highest honors that can be earned by a U.S. scientist. Being elected into this prestigious group of scientists recognizes their distinguished and continuing achievements in biomedical research. This brings the total number of Damon Runyon scientists who are members of the National Academy of Sciences to 74.

Feng Zhang, PhD (Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovator ‘12-‘14) of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, is a pioneer in developing the CRISPR-Cas9 system to edit genomes in living cells, including human. CRISPR is turbo-charging research in labs around the world, being used to understand the molecular mechanisms of diseases such as cancer and hereditary diseases, diagnose infectious diseases, and explore gene-edited food. 


"I am thrilled to join this terrific community of thought-leaders, many of whom have mentored or inspired me. The support from the Damon Runyon Foundation was instrumental in our work, and having it recognized by this amazing group of scientists is such an honor.”

Roger J. Davis, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ’83-‘84) of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worchester, is investigating the underlying mechanisms of how inflammation contributes to diabetes, cancer, and stroke. His studies have led to the discovery of new genes, which play a role in these devastating diseases and the development of novel therapeutic strategies. 


“My recent election to the National Academy is an honor that would not have happened without that initial support from Damon Runyon. The postdoctoral fellowship was critical for completing my training and provided a foundation for my research career.”


April 26, 2018

Gavin Dunn, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator '17-'20), and colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis, are developing a way to detect brain tumor biomarkers through a simple blood test. Taking a biopsy of a brain tumor is a complicated and invasive surgical process. The new groundbreaking, proof-of-concept technique allows biomarkers from a brain tumor to pass through the tough blood-brain barrier into a patient's blood using noninvasive focused ultrasound and some tiny bubbles, potentially eliminating the need for a surgical biopsy. The blood test would reveal the amount of mRNA in the blood, which gives physicians specific information about the tumor that can help with diagnosis and treatment options. He plans to use the technique with immunotherapy, offering precision treatment that targets specific biomarkers in the brain. The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports. 


April 23, 2018

Benjamin L. Martin, PhD (Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovator ’17-’18) and David Q. Matus, PhD (Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovator ’17-’18, Damon Runyon Fellow '07-'10) of Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, and colleagues, have developed new cell imaging technology that allows scientists investigating cancer and other diseases insights into how cells operate in real-time. This is the first time high-resolution, three-dimensional footage of the process has been visualized in action. One video shows in stunning detail a breast cancer cell rolling, crawling, and invading out of a blood vessel in a zebrafish. These observations indicate that breast cancer cells mimic immune cells called leukocytes and may help researchers discover new targets to stop the spread of metastatic cancer cells. Published in Science, this technology has the potential to observe cells across different organisms and developmental stages and in conditions such as cell division, immune processes, and metastasis.


March 5, 2018

The most deadly process in cancer is metastasis, when tumor cells spread to distant organs. Key to preventing metastasis is understanding how these cells are able to move through the body. Carey K. Anders, MD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator ’12-’15) of the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Chapel Hill, is shedding light on this process using genetic “snapshots” of both the primary tumor and the tumor after it has spread. She and her colleagues found that the cancer typically did not spread outside the breast as a single cell, but most likely broke away as a collection of cells. The results suggest that metastatic cancers are most often made up of cells with different genetic drivers. These diverse mutations in the original cancer are also potentially responsible for the metastatic process, and the cancer may not need to acquire new traits to be able to spread. This study indicates that targeting the primary tumor with multiple drugs may be important in containing the cancer. The report was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. 


March 1, 2018

Two new studies confirm that pediatric and adult cancers have different mechanisms driving the disease. These are the first large-scale genomic comparisons, combing through the genomes of more than 1,700 tumors, from over 20 different kinds of childhood cancers. Daniela S. Gerhard, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ’83-’85) of NCI, Bethesda, and Angela J. Waanders, MD, MPH (Dale F. Frey Breakthrough Scientist ’15-’17, Damon Runyon-Sohn Pediatric Cancer Fellow ‘12-‘15) of Chilidren’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, contributed to these studies.


Adult cancers arise from multiple genetic mutations that combine to drive cancer progression and often these same drivers are shared across diverse cancer types. A different picture emerges from these research studies for young patients: pediatric cancers have fewer mutations than adult cancers and are frequently defined by a single driver gene. Interestingly, these driver mutations tend to be specific to individual pediatric cancer types, with minimal overlap across diseases. They also found that different genes are mutated in pediatric compared to adult cancers. One study found only 30% of significantly mutated genes overlap with adult pan-cancer analyses. The similarities and differences between adult and pediatric cancers unearthed by the recent studies shed light on potential new drug targets and a better understanding of how cancer arises in children. It is clear that different precision medicine approaches are urgently needed for young patients. These studies were recently published in the scientific journal Nature.


February 19, 2018

The big story in cancer research is the recent success of immunotherapy, which involves training and reengineering the immune system to kill cancers. The New York Times featured four women whose rare, aggressive ovarian cancers were unexpectedly cured with immunotherapy. This story resulted from research by Dmitriy Zamarin, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow '13-'16) of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, who studied these patients to understand why they responded to this treatment (nivolumab/Opdivo). In addition, two other Damon Runyon alumni were featured.  Jedd D. Wolchok, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator '03-'08) of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, led the clinical trials for the first FDA-approved immunotherapy and continues research to understand why it works in some patients, but not others.  Eliezer M. Van Allen, MD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator '15-'18) of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, identified a genetic mutation that may explain why these patients and those with other unique cancers have responded to this therapy, which may help identify others who might benefit from immunotherapy.


February 1, 2018

Helen M. Piwnica-Worms, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ’84-’85, Former Fellowship Award Committee Member) of MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, received the 2018 Laura Ziskin Prize in Translational Research from Stand Up to Cancer. She and her collaborator will apply their expertise in DNA damage repair mechanisms and imaging mass cytometry to investigate how the immune system recognizes breast cancer and devise new treatment combinations for more effective treatments. 


January 31, 2018

Feng Zhang, PhD (Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovator ‘12-‘14) of the Broad Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, was named one of three recipients of the 2018 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science. The awards from the Vilcek Foundation recognize young foreign-born biomedical scientists, 38 years old or younger, who demonstrate outstanding early achievement.  He is recognized for his groundbreaking work in the field of CRISPR genome editing.  Watch a video of Feng describing his research and sharing his personal story. 


January 31, 2018

Ron Levy, MD (Emeritus Board Member), and colleagues at Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, reported the success of an injectable "vaccine" delivered directly to tumors. The vaccine combines two key agents, a short piece of DNA called CpG oligonucleotide with an antibody that binds to OX40, thus activating immune T cells to fight cancer cells. In mice, they found that it could eliminate all traces of the injected tumors, including untreated metastases in the same animal. A human clinical trial in low-grade lymphoma patients is currently underway. The study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine. 


January 29, 2018

Amanda Balboni Iniguez, PhD (Damon Runyon-Sohn Fellow ’15-’19) and colleagues at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, reported that a class of cancer drugs called CDK inhibitors may be able to disarm a gene that causes Ewing sarcoma, the second most common form of bone tumor in young people. They showed in mouse models of Ewing sarcoma that CDK12 inhibitors could slow down tumor growth and extend life. This class of drugs was first developed in 2014 by Nathanael Gray, PhD (Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovator ’08-’10). Further studies showed that a CDK12 inhibitor combined with another drug, called a PARP inhibitor, could deliver a lethal punch, stopping the cancer. Even more promising, the drug combination had no toxic effect on the bone marrow of the mice. The study was published in the journal Cancer Cell.


January 23, 2018

Mark W. Zimmerman, PhD (Damon Runyon-Sohn Fellow ’14-’18) and colleagues at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, have identified mechanisms that drive about 10 percent of high-risk neuroblastoma cases. Neuroblastoma is the most common solid tumor affecting infants and young children with few effective treatment options. The researchers found that a protein called c-MYC could cause neuroblastoma, when it is produced at abnormally high levels in tumor cells in a zebrafish model. They also found that chromosomes had breaks and rearrangements near the gene producing c-MYC. Such rearrangements put c-MYC next to pieces of DNA called super-enhancers that normally regulate and increase expression of other genes. c-MYC hijacked the super-enhancers, driving the development of neuroblastoma. This offers a new focus for precision drug development, particularly for an emerging class of drugs that work by degrading proteins like c-MYC. The results were published in Cancer Discovery.


January 17, 2018

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) will honor 19 individuals with awards in recognition of their extraordinary scientific achievements in a wide range of fields spanning the physical, biological, and medical sciences.  Congratulations to Damon Runyon alumnus and mentor Howard Y. Chang, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Scholar ‘06-‘08), of Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, who will receive the 2018 NAS Award in Molecular Biology for the discovery of long noncoding RNAs and the invention of genomic technologies.