New Discoveries and Honors

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

December 12, 2011

Catherine J. Wu, MD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator ‘07-‘12) and Matthew L. Meyerson, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘95-‘98) of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, led the first large-scale genomics study of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). In tumor samples from 91 patients, they identified nine commonly mutated genes – five of which have been linked to CLL for the first time. One of these genes, SF3B1, is required for gene splicing (RNA processing), connecting the process to disease progression. The researchers found that mutation in SF3B1 may indicate a more aggressive form of the disease that requires prompt treatment. These findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine and presented at the American Society of Hematology annual meeting.

December 8, 2011

David E. Lebwohl, MD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘86-‘87) of Novartis, East Hanover, and colleagues, reported results of a Phase III clinical trial testing the treatment combination of everolimus (Afinitor), which blocks a protein known to affect blood vessel growth in cancer cells, and the hormone therapy exemestane (Aromasin). 724 metastatic breast cancer patients with hormone receptor-positive tumors were enrolled in the trial. Patients who received the combination survived progression-free for twice as long as those who only received exemestane (7.4 months vs. 3.2 months). The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

November 22, 2011

Ralph J. DeBerardinis, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator ‘11-‘14) of UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, and colleagues, discovered a metabolic pathway unique to some tumors. The tumor-specific pathway is dependent on the amino acid glutamine and reverses many of the chemical reactions of the Krebs cycle, used by normal cells. This new finding could provide a new target for drugs that could specifically target cancer cells without harming healthy cells. The study was published in the scientific journal Nature.

November 9, 2011

Mark A. Lemmon, PhD (Damon Runyon Scholar ‘97-‘98, Damon Runyon Fellow ‘93-‘96) of University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and colleagues, reported new findings that will allow physicians to identify which neuroblastoma patients are most likely to respond to crizotinib (Xalkori). The drug was recently approved for treatment of certain lung cancers. It targets a protein called anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) which is mutated in about ten percent of children with deadly neuroblastoma tumors. The researchers reported that these patients respond differently to treatment, depending on the particular mutation in ALK.  The drug blocked growth of neuroblastoma cells with the most common mutation, while tumor cells with a separate ALK mutation were more resistant to the drug. These resistant cells, however, responded to a higher dosage of crizotinib. The researchers are now conducting a clinical trial to determine the appropriate drug dose in children, potentially providing a safer and more effective treatment option than conventional chemotherapy. The study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

October 26, 2011

Naoko Kobayashi, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘91-‘94) and colleagues at University of California, Los Angeles, reported results of a short-term Phase II clinical trial demonstrating anti-cancer benefits of fish oil. Men who ate a low-fat diet with fish oil supplements for four to six weeks before having their prostate removed had slower cancer cell growth in their prostate tissue than men who ate a typical high-fat Western diet. The researchers plan to expand this study to a larger group of men who will be monitored over an extended period of time (one year). This initial study, published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research, suggests that altering the diet may favorably affect the biology of prostate cancer.

October 17, 2011

A team of researchers including Wendy S. Garrett, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘06-‘09), Matthew L. Meyerson, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘95-‘98), Akinyemi I. Ojesina, MBBS, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘08-‘11) and Ramesh A. Shivdasani, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Scholar ‘98-‘99) at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Broad Institute, Cambridge, reported high levels of a specific type of bacteria, Fusobacterium, in colorectal tumor samples. Future studies will focus on determining the connection between the bacterium and cancer. If there is a link to disease development, the bacterium may be important for diagnosis, prevention and/or treatment. The study was published in the journal Genome Research

October 14, 2011

Judith Lieberman, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘84-‘86) of the Immune Disease Institute and Harvard Medical School, Boston, and colleagues, reported the first description of competing endogenous RNAs (ceRNAs) and their function. ceRNAs comprise a complex regulatory network that controls gene expression through binding of other RNAs called microRNAs. This study demonstrated that PTEN, a tumor suppressor, is regulated by 150 ceRNAs in human prostate and colon cancer cell lines. A separate study linked ceRNA-mediated regulation of PTEN to glioblastoma brain cancer. The discovery provides a new understanding of the genetics underlying cancer. These results were published in the journal Cell

October 9, 2011

Julien Sage, PhD (Damon Runyon Scholar ‘05-‘07) of Stanford University, Stanford, and colleagues, reported a crucial role for Hedgehog signaling in the development of small-cell lung cancer (SCLC). They demonstrated that blocking Hedgehog signaling inhibited the growth of SCLC, particularly after chemotherapy. Their findings suggest that Hedgehog pathway inhibition may be a promising therapeutic strategy to slow disease progression and delay cancer recurrence in SCLC patients. This study was published in the journal Nature Medicine.

September 30, 2011

The intent of the NIH High-Risk Research Awards is to encourage investigators to explore bold ideas that have the potential to catapult fields forward and speed the translation of research into improved health.  We congratulate the Damon Runyon scientists who are recipients of these awards.

Pioneer Award:

Brenda L. Bass, PhD (Fellow ‘85-‘88), University of Utah, Salt Lake City

William M. Clemons, PhD (Fellow ‘02-‘04), California Institute of Technology, Pasadena

Tao Pan, PhD (Fellow ‘91-‘93), University of Chicago, Chicago

New Innovator Award:

Heather R. Christofk, PhD (Innovator ‘10-‘12), University of California, Los Angeles

Lea A. Goentoro, PhD (Fellow ‘07-‘10), California Institute of Technology, Pasadena

September 27, 2011

Peter S. Nelson, MD (Clinical Investigator Mentor, Damon Runyon Scholar ‘02-‘04) of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, and colleagues, conducted the first comprehensive assessment of the genome of advanced, lethal prostate cancer. They discovered a number of recurrent genetic mutations common to advanced prostate cancer that may contribute to disease progression and resistance to commonly used therapies. The researchers hope that these findings will lead to development of new strategies for diagnosis and treatment. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

September 20, 2011

Scott A. Armstrong, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘03-‘08) of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Children’s Hospital Boston, and Kornelia Polyak, MD, PhD (Clinical Investigator Award Committee Member) of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, are two of this year’s recipients of the Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research. The awards recognize three young investigators under the age of forty-six for their exceptionally innovative work that has helped to advance the field of cancer research. Dr. Armstrong is recognized for notable achievements in the fields of cancer stem cell research and genomics that have led to landmark findings pointing to potential new therapies for leukemia. Dr. Polyak is recognized for her pioneering genomic discoveries in normal and cancerous breast tissue and for her efforts to translate those findings into improved diagnostic and therapeutic approaches.

September 10, 2011

James E. Bradner, MD (Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovator ‘11-‘13) of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, and colleagues, identified the protein Brd4 as a critical requirement for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) disease maintenance. Brd4 functions to control expression of Myc, a protein frequently disrupted in many cancers. Blocking Brd4, using either RNA interference or a drug called JQ1, led to anti-leukemic effects such as cancer cell death and a delay in disease progression. These findings were published in the journal Nature.  In a second paper published in the journal Cell, Bradner and colleagues reported the additional success of JQ1 in stopping the growth of multiple myeloma cells, which are dependent on Myc. These studies establish inhibition of Brd4 as a promising therapeutic strategy in multiple cancers. 

September 9, 2011

Ramesh A. Shivdasani, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Scholar ‘98-‘99) of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, and colleagues discovered a mechanism for how cancer cells become resistant to cetuximab/Erbitux, which is used to treat colorectal cancer or squamous cell cancer of the head and neck. They reported that a protein called ERBB2 allows cells to remain unresponsive to the drug. The study suggests that combining cetuximab with ERBB2-inhibiting drugs could be an effective therapy to both heighten and/or restore the drug’s potency. These findings were published in the journal Science Translational Medicine

July 28, 2011

Researchers from the Broad Institute, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, including Joseph A. Califano, III, MD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘01-‘06), Matthew L. Meyerson, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘95-‘98), Kenneth W. Kinzler, PhD (Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award Committee Member), and Todd R. Golub, MD (Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award Committee Member, Board Member), collaborated to identify genetic mutations present in tumor DNA from head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. They found defects in the tumor suppressor gene p53, as well as in the Notch signaling genes. In the future, scientists hope to be able to use these genetic alterations to predict a patient’s prognosis and define personalized treatment strategies. These studies were published in two papers in the journal Science.

July 12, 2011

Hai Yan, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Scholar ‘05-‘07) of Duke University, Durham, Kenneth W. Kinzler, PhD (Innovation Award Committee Member) of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and colleagues identified two genes that may regulate telomere length in cancer cells. Telomeres are “DNA caps” that protect the ends of chromosomes; telomerase is the enzyme that is normally used to maintain telomeres. These researchers found that rapidly dividing cancer cells can use an alternative means of maintaining telomere length, through the genes ATRX and DAXX. Mutations in these genes have been found in pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors and in several brain cancer types, including pediatric and adult glioblastoma; preliminary studies indicate that patients with these mutations in their tumors had better survival than those without the mutations. The results could have important implications in the future for determining patient prognosis and developing new treatments. The study was published in the journal Science.

July 7, 2011

Jeremy N. Rich, MD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘04-‘09) of Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, and colleagues, reported new findings about brain cancer stem cells. Malignant gliomas, aggressive brain tumors with limited treatment options, contain highly tumorigenic subpopulations of cancer stem cells. The researchers identified an enzyme, nitric oxide synthase-2 (NOS2), required for these stem cells to grow and seed tumors. High NOS2 levels correlate with decreased survival in patients with glioma. Drugs that block NOS2 slow brain tumor growth in mice. Scientists hope these findings will enable glioma stem cells to be targeted in humans, providing an effective new treatment option. This study was published in the scientific journal Cell

June 28, 2011

Jean Y. Tang, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator ‘11-‘14) of Stanford University, Stanford, and colleagues, reported analysis of data from the Women’s Health Initiative. They found that women with a history of non-melanoma skin cancer, such as basal cell or squamous cell cancers, who took a calcium-vitamin D combination developed 57 percent fewer melanomas than women with similar histories who were not given the supplements. In the future, researchers plan to further examine the potential relationship between vitamin D and cancer prevention. The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

June 19, 2011

Amanda Paulovich, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘02-‘03), Peter S. Nelson, MD (Damon Runyon Scholar ‘02-‘04, Clinical Investigator Mentor), and colleagues at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, used a highly sensitive and targeted analytical technology, selected reaction monitoring mass spectrometry, to test candidate protein biomarkers. This technology allows highly specific and sensitive measurement of many proteins from a small drop of blood. The researchers identified those proteins that were elevated in the blood of mice with breast cancer as compared to healthy mice. A subset of these proteins were found to be elevated before tumors could be seen, suggesting that they could be used for early detection of the cancer. The goal is to apply this strategy to determine the most promising protein biomarkers associated with early breast cancer development in humans. The study was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

June 7, 2011

Nathanael S. Gray, PhD (Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovator ‘08-‘10), Matthew Meyerson, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘95-‘98) and colleagues at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, reported that the gene FGFR1 is amplified in 21% of squamous cell lung cancers. In cell lines, inhibition of FGFR blocked cell growth. These findings suggest that FGFR may be a promising therapeutic target for these lung cancers. The report was published in the journal PLoS ONE.

June 1, 2011

William C. Hahn, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘98-‘99), Serena J. Silver, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘05-‘06), Kornelia Polyak, MD, PhD (Clinical Investigator Award Committee Member), and colleagues at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, reported new findings about stem cells in triple-negative breast cancers, which tend to be aggressive and highly resistant to current therapies. The researchers discovered that these cells have elevated activity of genes in the Jak2/Stat3 pathway. Blocking this pathway halted tumor growth in a mouse model of triple-negative breast cancer. These findings may lead to more specific and effective breast cancer therapies. The report was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

May 3, 2011

Election to the National Academy of Sciences is one of the highest honors that can be earned by a U.S. scientist.  In recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original biomedical research, two Damon Runyon alumni were inducted this May:

Alexander D. Johnson, PhD (Fellow ‘81-‘83 and Former Sponsor), Professor and Vice Chair, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of California, San Francisco

Luis F. Parada, PhD (Fellow ‘85-‘86 and Fellowship Award Committee ‘99-‘03), Professor and Diana K. and Richard C. Strauss Distinguished Chair in Developmental Biology, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas

April 6, 2011

Monte Winslow, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘06-‘09), Matthew Meyerson, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘95-‘98, former Fellowship Sponsor), Tyler Jacks, PhD (Former Fellowship Award Committee Member and Fellowship Sponsor) and colleagues at MIT, Cambridge, identified the important role of a gene called NKX2-1 in metastasis of lung adenocarcinoma. In animal studies, the researchers linked reduced activity of the gene to enhanced tumor seeding activity and metastasis. They also found that reduced gene function is associated with higher death rates for lung-cancer patients. The study was published in the prestigious journal Nature.  

April 2, 2011

John V. Heymach, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator  ‘04-‘09), Waun Ki Hong, MD (Former Clinical Investigator Committee Member and Mentor), and colleagues at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, reported the identification of two sets of genes that predict response to Tarceva/erlotinib, a targeted therapy used for treatment of certain non-small cell lung cancers. These gene “signatures” were based on the results of the BATTLE clinical trial and will have broad significance, as they will allow physicians to better determine effective treatment regimens for patients. The findings were reported at the AACR 102nd Annual Meeting.

March 25, 2011

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) has recognized leading cancer researchers whose work has significantly contributed to progress in the fight against cancer.  Among those honored are 5 Damon Runyon scientists:

Nathanael S. Gray, PhD (Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovator ‘08-‘10) of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston: 31st Annual AACR Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cancer Research

Philip C. Hanawalt, PhD (Former Fellowship Sponsor) of Stanford University, Stanford: Fifth Annual AACR Princess Takamatsu Memorial Lectureship

Guillermina Lozano, PhD (Former Fellowship Award Committee Member) of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston: Sixth Annual AACR-Minorities in Cancer Research Jane Cooke Wright Lectureship

Carol L. Prives, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘68) of Columbia University, New York: 14th Annual AACR-Women in Cancer Research Charlotte Friend Memorial Lectureship

Gregory L. Verdine, PhD (Former Fellowship Award Committee Member) of Harvard University, Cambridge: 5th Annual AACR Award for Outstanding Achievement in Chemistry in Cancer Research

March 24, 2011

Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘00-‘05) and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, reported the success of an experimental antibody that activates the immune protein CD40 and targets pancreatic cancer. In a preliminary study, on average, patients with advanced pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma who were treated with the CD40 antibody survived longer and experienced temporary tumor regression. By studying mice, the researchers determined that this effect was caused by the activation of immune cells, called macrophages, that destroyed the environment surrounding the tumor and attacked the cancer cells. This discovery may lead to a promising new treatment for pancreatic cancer. The report was published in the prestigious journal Science.   

March 23, 2011

Craig J. Ceol, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘05-‘07) of University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, and colleagues, reported the identification of the gene SETDB1 which is capable of accelerating melanoma formation in zebrafish. SETDB1 cooperates with BRAF(V600E), the most common mutation in human melanoma; the SETDB1 gene encodes a histone modifying enzyme often upregulated in those tumors. This finding supports the model that disruption of histone modification promotes cancer. SETDB1 may also be a promising drug target. This study was published in and is featured on the cover of the prestigious journal Nature.

March 23, 2011

A team of scientists including Rafael Fonseca, MD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘00-‘05), William C. Hahn, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘98-‘99), Matthew Meyerson, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘95-‘98) and Todd R. Golub, MD (Innovation Award Committee Member, Board Member) reported the first-ever sequencing of genomes from 38 patient samples of multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. The study revealed new and unexpected genetic mutations affecting certain pathways, such as NF-κB signaling and the kinase BRAF, as well as mutations in genes regulating RNA processing, protein folding, and blood coagulation. These findings give further insight into the disease. Identification of the link between BRAF and multiple myeloma will likely lead to clinical studies evaluating existing targeted drugs (BRAF inhibitors) for treatment of myeloma. The study was published in the scientific journal Nature.    

March 23, 2011

Adrian P. Bird, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘71-‘73) of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh has been named one of five recipients of the 2011 Canada Gairdner International Award. This highly prestigious award recognizes individuals who have made significant tangible achievements in the field of medical science. Dr. Bird is honored “for pioneering discoveries on DNA methylation and its role in gene expression.” His work has had an important impact on the understanding of Rett Syndrome and is likely to also result in insights for cancer and other human diseases.   

March 16, 2011

Elaine V. Fuchs, PhD (Damon Runyon Board Member, Damon Runyon Fellow ‘77-‘79) of The Rockefeller University, New York, and James A. Thomson, VMD, PhD (Current Fellowship Sponsor) of the Morgridge Institute for Research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, have been named recipients of the 11th annual Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research. They are honored for their pioneering work in the field of stem cell biology. Stem cells have the potential to someday be used to treat or reverse diseases and conditions such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injury. 

February 24, 2011

President Obama appointed William R. Sellers, MD (Board Member, Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘01-‘05) to the National Cancer Advisory Board. The board is charge