Eight medical researchers from Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine have received grants from the National Institute of Health’s High-Risk, High-Reward Program, which aims to enable researchers to answer questions with breakthrough answers.
The Transformative Research Prize, created to strengthen multidisciplinary innovation, was awarded to a group of five medical school scientists – Donita Brady, George Burslem, Luca Busino, Eric Witze and Terence Gade – for their research on genetically mutated proteins in tumor cells.
They aspire to develop a new technology called the Probe Enabled Activity Reporting system, which could eventually be translated into a therapeutic drug.
Additionally, Chengcheng Jin, Bushra Raj and Amelia Escolano each won the New Innovator Award for their projects, which aims to support cutting-edge medical researchers early in their careers.
Jin, an assistant professor of cancer biology at Penn, has secured $1.5 million in five-year funding from the NIH for his research on neutrophils, an immune cell abundant in the human body that protects against deadly infections.
When tumor cells enter the body’s ecosystem, Jin said, they’re essentially able to “hijack” those neutrophils, reprogramming them to “reshape the tissue microenvironment so that it’s actually easier for cancer cells to grow”.
However, cancer treatment drugs cannot target these neutrophils without compromising the body’s immune system, leaving patients at high risk of fatal infection. With the New Innovator Award money, Jin plans to identify the pathways by which the tumor microenvironment is able to take over neutrophils and then suppress them.
“Our study attempts to understand how specifically the tumor microenvironment can reprogram these cells so that we can target these pathways to transform neutrophils to their original function without affecting the good ones that protect against infection,” she said. .
Jin said she was motivated by the possibility of saving and improving lives, drawing inspiration from the stories of affected patients.
“Hearing a cancer survivor talk about his experience, how he really benefits from research… he leaves happy with his family,” she said. “Without the insights of the researchers, they wouldn’t have a chance.”
Jin is also grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with a diverse group of scientists. Coming from an undergraduate career at Tsinghua University in Beijing, she appreciates how science acts as a universal language.
“I’ve seen many backgrounds or cultural differences,” she said, “but we all come together for one purpose, which is to cure cancer.”
Both Brady and Witze are associate professors of cancer biology, with a background in chemistry and biology, and Gade is an assistant professor of radiology and cancer biology with a background in biophysics and noninvasive imaging.
The researchers stressed the importance of harnessing the multidisciplinary expertise of their team members, approaching cancer from various medical angles.
“I think that’s a really unique characteristic of Penn,” Gade said. “I don’t think it’s possible to bring people from such diverse backgrounds together scientifically everywhere. I think it’s one of the real strengths of Penn to allow these types of collaborations.
Their research focuses on using chemical probes — molecules that can react with different proteins in a cell — to identify the genetic mutations that create the conditions for cancer to grow between different patient samples.
Their study would allow for a more precise form of cancer treatment that would target specific genetic mutations, whereas most current cancer drugs target protein biomarkers.
“We’re wasting time,” Gade said. “We treat patients with drugs that will never work, because we never asked the question ‘are the targets there?'”
This new approach is the type of project that the high-risk, high-reward funding mechanism aims to support. It is designed to allow scientists to think outside the box, Gade described.
Prior to receiving the NIH grant, the team applied for the Mark Foundation for Cancer Research’s Endeavor Award and was selected as a finalist, but ultimately did not receive the grant.
“Going against the dogma of an area is a challenge,” Brady said.
But after winning the New Innovator Award, the team is inspired to keep pushing medical boundaries.
“It’s about a passion for science,” Gade said. “It’s not a job. It’s something you live every day because you’re passionate about it. I would say we have the best jobs in the world because we wake up every morning and ask interesting questions. »
Jin, Gade, Brady, and Witze currently employ undergraduate students in their labs and stressed that training the next generation of scientists is an invaluable aspect of their careers.
“I really enjoy working with my postdoctoral fellow students in the lab because you see their growth as scientists. It’s not just about studying the disease itself, but about building a science team to get the next generation of scientists interested in the topic and training them so they can continue this important kind of research,” Jin said. .
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