2011 New Discoveries and Honors in Cancer Research

2011 New Discoveries and Honors in Cancer Research

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Members of the Damon Runyon scientific circle regularly publish findings on the latest cancer research and are frequently recognized for their contributions to the fight against cancer.  Below, you will find new discoveries in cancer research and the most recent honors bestowed upon Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation awardees, alumni and friends.

December 12, 2011 > Novel genes linked to Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

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.

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December 7, 2011 > New treatment combination improves breast cancer survival

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.

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November 20, 2011 > Tumor-specific metabolic pathway discovered

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.

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November 9, 2011 > Targeted therapy for treatment of neuroblastoma

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.

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October 25, 2011 > Fish oil may slow prostate cancer growth

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.

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October 17, 2011 > Possible link between colorectal cancer and bacterium

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

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October 14, 2011 > Novel mechanism of gene regulation identified

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

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October 9, 2011 > Role for Hedgehog signaling pathway in lung cancer

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.

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October 3, 2011 > Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2011

Ralph M. Steinman, MD (Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator Mentor) of The Rockefeller University, New York, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2011 “for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity.”  His work revealed new insights into how infections, cancer, and inflammatory diseases can be prevented and treated.  Dr. Steinman passed away on September 30 at the age of 68.

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September 30, 2011 > New NIH High-Risk Research Awards announced

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

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September 27, 2011 > Genome mapping of advanced prostate cancers

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.

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September 20, 2011 > 2011 National Medal of Science

President Obama named Rudolf Jaenisch, MD (Fellowship Sponsor) of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, one of seven recipients of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor.  Awarded annually, the Medal recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering.  

Click here for The White House press release. 


September 20, 2011 > 2011 Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research

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.

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September 10, 2011 > New target for treatment of blood cancers

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. 

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September 9, 2011 > Understanding resistance to Erbitux

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

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July 28, 2011 > Genetic profile of head and neck cancer

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.

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July 12, 2011 > Alternative telomere lengthening in cancer cells

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.

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July 7, 2011 > Brain cancer stem cell molecule identified

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

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June 28, 2011 > Calcium plus vitamin D may reduce risk of melanoma in certain women

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.

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