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Announcing the 2019-20 Young Investigator Awards

Alexandra Nikitas

The Cancer Research Foundation is pleased to announce the 2019-20 Young Investigator Awardees

The Young Investigator Award is the Cancer Research Foundation’s preeminent grant making program; the awards represent the CRF’s commitment to funding promising early-career scientists. The Young Investigator Awards are intended to address a potentially difficult time in a cancer researcher’s career: when one is just getting started as a principal investigator. Putting together an initial data set or starting to pursue a new idea requires financial support, but most funders require primary data and results as proof of principle before they are willing to provide funding. Cancer Research Foundation Young Investigators receive a total of $100,00 over two years to pursue their own independent hypotheses and create their primary data sets.

Recently the Cancer Research Foundation named seven scientists as 2019-20 CRF Young Investigators; the projects they will pursue with this funding represent some of the most exciting fields rising in cancer science today.  Within this group the CRF is supporting researchers who hope to make current methods of cancer discovery and monitoring exponentially better through synthetic chemistry, scientists researching ways that the microbiome already living within you may cause cancer re-occurrence, and  researchers querying whether the current limitations in immunotherapy are due to immune systems in connected organs or to the nutrient mix within the tumor microenvironment.  The group  features scientists working out how we can better prevent tumors from getting what they need to grow, researchers working on making better and more informative tumor models and scientists working on identifying new genetic risks for cancer and ways to spot them.  2019-20 Young Investigators are working in blood cancer, pancreatic cancer, head and neck cancer and colorectal cancer; a number are working on hypotheses or technologies that could affect wide groupings of cancers.  These researchers come from a great number of scientific and clinical fields, from human genetics to chemistry, surgery to pathology. This breath of knowledge and training is a key factor in the leverage we feel the Young Investigator Awards bring to bear on the fight against cancer.

Meet the 2019-20 Young Investigator Awardees

 Click on a Young Investigator’s name to learn more

Michael W. Drazer, MD – Clinical Instructor – University of Chicago

“Modeling Leukemogenic Mechanisms in Hereditary Hematopoietic Disorders”

At least 13% of all blood cancers are caused by genetic mutations that are passed from parents to their children. If you have one of these mutations, you have a 44% greater chance of developing a blood cancer. Still, we do not yet have a targeted treatment for blood cancers driven by these genetic mutations, nor have we developed good prevention strategies for people at this higher risk. With this Young Investigator Award Dr. Michael Drazer will pursue a number of mutations he has identified by creating cellular models from his patients and their families.  He hopes to discover direct links between these genetic markers and the development of blood cancers.

Daria Esterházy, PhD – Assistant Professor – University of Chicago

“Duodenal Control of Pancreatic-Ductal Adenocarcinoma”

There are distinct and unique connections between the upper small intestine and the pancreas, and the intestinal system generally has a less aggressive immune system.  Dr. Esterhazy plans to investigate whether the small intestine is influencing the pancreas to reduce its immune response in pancreatic cancer, potentially suggesting a way to reassert an immune response to counter some forms of pancreatic cancer.

Mark Levin, PhD – Assistant Professor – University of Chicago

“Next-Generation PET Tracer Synthesis for Cancer Imaging”

Professor Levin is proposing a new way to create a synthetic tracer compound which will significantly improve the effectiveness of current PET scan technology.  If he is successful, his technology will open the door to a whole new class of more effective imaging compounds.

Alex Muir, PhD – Assistant Professor University of Chicago

“Regulation of cancer cells and immune cells by the tumor nutrient microenvironment”

Dr. Alex Muir has developed a technique to measure nutrient levels and nutrient stress within the pancreatic tumor microenvironment; this nutrient stress both provides tumor with a growth advantage and limits immune responses to tumors.  His hope is to identify new ways to metabolically target cancer cells and to reinvigorate the anti-cancer immune system.

Sid Puram, MD, PhD –  Assistant Professor – Washington University in St. Louis

“ Malignant and immune cell heterogeneity before and after immune checkpoint inhibition”

Immunotherapy has been a miracle cure for a handful of patients, but many cancer patients do not respond to this treatment.  Dr. Puram suggests that the reason for the lack of response in some patients may have to do with the composition of different types of cancer cells and cells surrounding the tumor.  This project will study both the diversity and location of tumor and immune cells within a set of patient samples before and after immunotherapy.

Benjamin Shogan, MD – Assistant Professor – University of Chicago

Urokinase activation by Enterococcus. Faecalis to Promote Cancer progress:  a novel mechanism of colorectal cancer recurrence following surgery.

Cancer recurs in up to 40% of all colorectal cancers after surgery, even when all known cancer is removed with good margins.  Dr.  Benjamin Shogan has observed that specific bacteria might be to blame for causing remaining shed cancer cells to migrate back to the site of the surgery and become aggressive, forming new tumors.  He proposes to study the interaction of these bacteria and make clear how this microbial process might be blocked to prevent further cancer formation.

Amber N. Stratman, PhD – Assistant Professor – Washington University in St. Louis

Regulating the vasculature in the tumor microenvironment

The creation of new blood vessels is an important part of how a cancerous tumor nourishes itself and grows. However, thus far researchers and clinicians have been unable to effectively block tumor blood vessel growth long-term as a way of starving tumors.  Dr. Stratman has identified steps used in building new tumors blood vessels that are distinctly different from the regular processes used by stabilized, non-tumor blood vessels.  This finding may provide a target for new cancer therapeutics.