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 17, 2012

Adam de la Zerda, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘11-‘12) of Stanford University, Stanford, was named to the Forbes Magazine “30 Under 30” list in Science and Healthcare for 2012. Adam is applying nanotechnology and novel medical imaging to look inside tumors and gather information on cellular changes that drive cancer progression. Those on this list “represent the entrepreneurial, creative and intellectual best of their generation.”


December 14, 2012

Frank G. Haluska, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘94-‘96) of ARIAD Pharmaceuticals, Cambridge, and colleagues, reported the success of the investigational targeted therapy Ponatinib (AP24534) in treating patients with resistant types of blood cancers, including chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) and a subtype of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (Ph-positive ALL).  The drug blocks the kinase BCR-ABL, including its mutated form (T315I) which is resistant to existing kinase inhibitor drugs.  In this Phase I trial, nearly all patients responded to treatment.  Ponatinib is a promising new treatment for patients who have no other treatment options.  The Phase I trial results were reported in The New England Journal of Medicine. The FDA approved ponatinib (Iclusig) for the treatment of these two forms of drug-resistant leukemia. Approval was based on a single phase II trial, results of which were reported last week at the American Society of Hematology’s annual meeting.


November 29, 2012

Jing Yang, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘00-‘03) and colleagues at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, La Jolla, demonstrated how cancer cells control a developmental process known as epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) to metastasize, breaking free and spreading to other parts of the body, where they proliferate and grow into secondary tumors. The researchers reported that activation of a gene called Twist1 turns on EMT, promoting cancer cell release into blood circulation; EMT must then be turned off once the tumor cells reach new sites in the body to proliferate and form metastases. Their findings suggest that EMT inhibitors may be possible cancer treatments. This work was published in the journal Cancer Cell.


October 2, 2012

Sarkis K. Mazmanian, PhD (Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovator ‘08-‘10) of California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, was named one of 23 MacArthur Fellows for 2012. He is recognized for his innovative research elucidating the critical role of bacterial microbes in human health, which could lead to new therapies or preventive treatments for a variety of human diseases including cancer. The MacArthur Fellows Program awards five-year, unrestricted fellowships to individuals across all ages and fields who show exceptional merit and promise of continued creative work.   


September 5, 2012

Mark B. Gerstein, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘94-‘96) of Yale University, New Haven, and colleagues, announced the exciting results of the ENCODE (Encyclopedia of DNA Elements) project. As reported in 30 publications in Nature and other journals, the consortium assigned a biochemical function to over 80% of the human genome—sequences that had previously been thought to be “junk DNA.” ENCODE was featured in The New York Times and selected as one of the “Runners-Up” for Science magazine’s 2012 Breakthrough of the Year.


August 23, 2012

Linda Hsieh-Wilson, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘97-‘00), of California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, reported that tumor cells modify their proteins through addition of carbohydrate (glycosylation or GlcNAc) in response to their surroundings, which allows the cancer cells to survive. When the researchers blocked the addition of GlcNAc to phosphofructokinase 1 (PFK1), a protein involved in cell metabolism, cancer cell proliferation and tumor formation were reduced in mice. This defines a new mechanism for the regulation of metabolic pathways in cancer and a possible target for therapeutic intervention. The study was published in the journal Science.    


August 9, 2012

Joshua D. Schiffman, MD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator ‘11-‘14) of University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and colleagues, reported results of a genomic study of Ewing sarcoma (ES), the second most common bone tumor in children and young adults. By examining 40 primary tumors and 12 metastatic lesions, the researchers identified genetic factors predictive of overall survival as well as a particular gene deletion (RELN gene) that is unique to metastatic lesions. These findings will be useful for development of more effective, personalized treatment regimens. The report was published in the journal Cancer Genetics.


August 2, 2012

Zsofia K. Stadler, MD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator ‘11-‘14) of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York City, led a genomic study of testicular cancer that identified “copy number variations” (CNVs) as a cause of cancer. Rather than being triggered by a single gene mutation, these tumors can be caused by CNVs (too many or too few copies of a gene). CNVs occurred spontaneously in 7% of patients with early-onset testicular germ cell tumors. These findings were published in The American Journal of Human Genetics


August 1, 2012

Luis F. Parada, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘85-‘86) and colleagues at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, used genetic techniques to track cancer cells. They found that glioblastoma brain cancers contained a small number of stem cells that are resistant to chemotherapy and can give rise to tumor cells. This study—along with two separate studies conducted independently by other research groups—confirms the existence of cancer stem cells, and the researchers are now searching for ways to kill these cells. These results were published in the journal Nature.


August 1, 2012

Andrew L. Feldman, MD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator ‘09-‘14), and colleagues at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, reported the completion of the world’s first genome-wide sequencing analysis of peripheral T-cell lymphomas, a highly aggressive cancer of the immune system. The team found 13 genetic abnormalities, five of which involve genes related to the tumor suppressor p53. These findings will ultimately be used to improve diagnostic tests and develop targeted treatments for this type of lymphoma. The study was published in the journal Blood


July 23, 2012

Valerie Horsley, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘04-‘07) of Yale University, New Haven, and Georgios Skiniotis, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘04-‘07) of University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, were named recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service. Valerie studies the role of skin stem cells in wound healing and cancer formation. Georgios uses electron microscopy to examine the structure of cellular signaling proteins, applying these findings to understand their function in normal development and diseases.     


June 6, 2012

Jean Y. Tang, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator ‘11-‘14) of Stanford University School of Medicine, and colleagues, reported the success of a newly approved drug, vismodegib/Erivedge, in dramatically shrinking basal cell carcinoma (BCC) skin cancers and preventing new ones from forming in patients with basal cell nevus syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes dozens to thousands of skin cancers on each patient’s body. The Phase II clinical trial was stopped early because of the overwhelming effectiveness of the drug, which provides the possibility of an alternative treatment to surgical removal. It blocks the Hedgehog signaling pathway, which is inappropriately activated in BCC as well as other cancer types. The report was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.


June 2, 2012

Charles G. Drake, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘04-‘09) and colleagues at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, Baltimore, reported the success of two Phase I clinical trials to test  immunotherapy treatments that block the PD-1 protein and the PD-L1 protein, respectively.  The drugs help to restore the immune system’s ability to spot and attack cancer, and have shown promising results in patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer, melanoma, and kidney cancer.  Significant tumor shrinkage followed by stable disease was observed in up to 28 percent of patients.  These results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine and presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.


May 16, 2012

Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘00-‘05) and colleagues at University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, reported that the drug daclizumab (Zenapax) improved the survival of breast cancer patients taking a cancer vaccine by 30 percent (seven months), compared to those patients not taking the drug. Daclizumab, approved for use in preventing transplant rejection, targets Tregs (regulatory T cells) that normally prevent the immune system from detecting and attacking tumors. The researchers tested the drug in ten patients with metastatic breast cancer prior to giving them an experimental breast cancer vaccine. The tumors stopped growing in six of these patients. This drug, in combination with other immunotherapy, may be useful for treatment of other cancer types as well. These promising results were published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.


May 9, 2012

A team of scientists from the Broad Institute, Cambridge, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, led by Matthew L. Meyerson, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘95-‘98) and Todd R. Golub, MD (Innovation Award Committee Member, Board Member) sequenced the whole genomes of 25 metastatic melanoma tumors. Analysis of these sequences indicated that the rates of genetic mutation rose along with chronic sun exposure in patients. As expected, the scientists detected known mutations in genes that regulate cell growth. In addition, they also identified mutations in a gene called PREX2 in 44 percent of patients. The study was published in the journal Nature.   


May 1, 2012

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, three Damon Runyon alumni were inducted this May:

Rachel D. Green, PhD (Fellow ‘93-‘96, Current Innovation Award Committee, Fellowship Sponsor), Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Professor, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore

Gregory J. Hannon, PhD (Fellow ‘92-‘94, Current Innovation Award Committee, Fellowship Sponsor), Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Professor, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor

Eckard A. F. Wimmer, PhD (Grantee ‘71-‘74, Former Fellowship Award Committee, Fellowship Sponsor), Distinguished Professor, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook


April 30, 2012

MCL1 encodes a protein that helps keep cells alive (anti-apoptotic); it is frequently overexpressed in cancer. Joseph T. Opferman, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘01-‘04) and colleagues at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, reported that different forms of MCL-1 reside in distinct locations in the cell’s mitochondria and exhibit separable functions. One form is anti-apoptotic, while a newly identified form that works inside the mitochondria is involved in energy production and is probably essential for tumor cell survival. This study was published in the journal Nature Cell Biology.


April 26, 2012

Sujun Hua, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘10-‘13), Costas A. Lyssiotis, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘10-‘13), Ji-Hye Paik, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘06-‘08) and colleagues at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, discovered a new role for the Kras oncogene in controlling cell metabolism. They reported that a genetic mutation in Kras linked to initiation of pancreatic cancer also manipulates metabolic pathways to support tumor growth and progression. The findings suggest that combination strategies to target both metabolic and Kras signaling pathways may be effective for treatment of pancreatic cancers. The study was published in the journal Cell.


April 16, 2012

Guo Wei, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘05-‘08), Todd R. Golub, MD (Innovation Award Committee Member, Board Member) and colleagues at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and The Broad Institute, Cambridge, used chemical genomics to identify compounds that decrease activity of MCL1, a protein that helps keep cells alive (anti-apoptotic) and is frequently overexpressed in cancer. In addition, the researchers found that high expression of another gene, BCL-xL, confers resistance to MCL1 repression. These compounds could be developed as cancer therapeutics to treat MCL1-dependent tumors, using BCL-xL as a biomarker to predict whether a tumor will respond to therapy. This study was published in the journal Cancer Cell


April 5, 2012

Scott A. Armstrong, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘03-‘08) of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Children’s Hospital Boston, and colleagues, reported the role of a protein called β-catenin in chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) stem cells. They demonstrated that reducing β-catenin in combination with treatment with Gleevec/imatinib decreases CML stem cells in mice, without harming healthy cells. These findings, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, suggest that this combination therapy may prevent recurrence of AML disease in patients. 


March 28, 2012

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) named Damon Runyon Scientists recipients of awards that recognize their scientific achievements and significant contributions to the understanding, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of cancer. John Mendelsohn, MD (Damon Runyon Grantee ‘72-‘74 and former Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator Award Committee Member) of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, was honored with the AACR Margaret Foti Award for Leadership and Extraordinary Achievements in Cancer Research. He is a pioneer in the area of targeted cancer therapies. Maura L. Gillison, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘00-‘05) of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, Columbus, was honored with the AACR Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Memorial Award for her research leading to an understanding of the role of human papillomavirus (HPV) in head and neck cancers. In addition, Sridhar Mani, MD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘02-‘07) of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, was one of six Indian American scientists recognized by the Society of Asian American Scientists in Cancer Research for their outstanding contributions to cancer research.


March 7, 2012

Jedd D. Wolchok, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘03-‘08) of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, and colleagues, reported the results of a unique single-patient study, in which a melanoma patient was treated with the immunotherapeutic Yervoy in combination with local radiation to the site of one tumor.  Metastatic tumors all over the body disappeared. This phenomenon, called the abscopal effect, occurs only rarely; researchers believe that it occurs because radiation may help stimulate the immune system to fight cancer. The combination of Yervoy and radiation may be a promising approach for the treatment of melanoma as well as prostate cancer. The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. 


February 29, 2012

Elaine V. Fuchs, PhD (Damon Runyon Board Member, Damon Runyon Fellow ‘77-‘79) of The Rockefeller University, New York, has been named a recipient of the 2012 March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology. She will share the award with Howard Green, MD, of Harvard Medical School, Boston. The prize recognizes their revolutionary research in skin biology, which explains the molecular underpinnings of skin stem cells and inherited skin disorders, including cancers and certain birth defects. 


February 22, 2012

Ian Y. Wong, PhD (Damon Runyon-Merck Fellow ‘10-‘13) of Massachusetts General Hospital, Cambridge, and colleagues, developed a new microfluidic device that can isolate specific cells faster and more accurately than existing devices. These new devices could potentially be applied to the isolation of cancer cells from patient blood samples for use in diagnostics and personalized medicine. The study was published in Biophysical Journal


January 31, 2012

Alice Tsang Shaw, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Fellow ‘04-‘05) of Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Pierre P. Massion, MD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘03-‘08) of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, and colleagues, reported the role of the ROS1 gene in certain non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC). 1 to 2 percent of NSCLC tumors have mutations in ROS1.  Importantly, the researchers demonstrated that these ROS1-mutated tumors can be treated with the recently approved drug crizotinib, which also inhibits the growth of tumors containing mutations in the ALK gene. These findings were demonstrated in vitro in cell lines, as well as in a single patient who displayed tumor shrinkage with a near complete response following crizotinib treatment. The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.


January 29, 2012

Rachael A. Clark, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator ‘08-‘13) of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, and colleagues reported that the drug Campath (alemtuzumab) effectively treats patients with Leukemic cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (L-CTCL), a leukemia arising from a type of white blood cell called T-cells. This cancer can involve the skin and other organs, and patients often die within three years. The researchers demonstrated that Campath only kills T-cells that enter the bloodstream, including the cancerous T-cells; it spares a newly discovered population of immune cells called tissue resident T-cells that provide the patient with immunity against infections. This study is the first demonstration in humans that tissue resident T-cells provide crucial immune protection of the skin.  The findings were published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.


January 26, 2012

Maura L. Gillison, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon-Lilly Clinical Investigator ‘00-‘05) of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, Columbus, and colleagues reported that the prevalence of oral HPV (human papillomavirus) infection is about 7 percent in the United States. The prevalence was higher among men than among women.  HPV-16, the high-risk strain linked to throat cancers and many cervical cancers, is detected in 1 percent of people. The authors identified smoking and sexual behavior as risk factors for HPV infection. The report was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.


January 12, 2012

In two parallel studies, Ralph J. DeBerardinis, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator ‘11-‘14) of UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, and Matthew G. Vander Heiden, MD, PhD (Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovator ‘11-‘13, Fellow ‘06-‘08) of MIT, Cambridge, and colleagues, reported the use of noninvasive imaging technology (magnetic resonance spectroscopy) to visualize whether glioma brain tumors have a particular genetic mutation called IDH. Several pharmaceutical companies are currently developing drugs that target IDH, with the goal of halting tumor growth. Knowing whether brain tumors have the IDH mutation will enable physicians to choose appropriate treatments and monitor whether potential drugs are effective. These studies were published in the journals Nature Medicine and Science Translational Medicine, respectively.