Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has named three investigators as recipients of this year’s Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research. The award recognizes promising investigators aged 45 or younger for their efforts in advancing cancer research.
The winners are Simon J. Boulton, PhD, FMedSci, 41, of Cancer Research UK; Levi A. Garraway, MD, PhD, 45, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; and Duojia (DJ) Pan, PhD, 45, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. They will each receive an award of $50,000 and speak about their research at a scientific symposium on December 5.
“Each of these winners is already a star in his field,” said Craig B. Thompson, MD, President and CEO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “We expect their research to have far-reaching impact on our understanding of cancer, and that they will continue to lead the way toward discoveries that will ultimately lighten the burden of those suffering from this disease.”
The winners were selected by a committee made up of prominent members of the cancer research community and chaired by Michael B. Kastan, MD, PhD, Executive Director of the Duke Cancer Institute. “The three winners of this year’s Paul Marks Prize have all made major contributions to our understanding of the genetic changes that lead to tumor development or the mechanisms by which those changes occur,” Dr. Kastan said. “The committee was particularly impressed that each of the winners has already established themselves as an international leader in their respective areas of scientific study at this early stage in their career.”
Since it was first presented in 2001, the biennial Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research has recognized 22 young scientists and has awarded nearly $1 million in prize money. The award was created to honor Dr. Marks, MD, President Emeritus of Memorial Sloan Kettering, for his contributions as a scientist, teacher, and leader during the 19 years he headed the Center.
Simon J. Boulton
Dr. Boulton is head of the DNA Damage Response Lab and a Senior Research Scientist at Cancer Research UK.
His research is focused on DNA repair and the discovery of genes and proteins that play an important role in maintaining the integrity of the genome. This field is important for cancer research, because when errors in the genetic code are not repaired, they can lead to cell damage — including the uncontrolled cell growth that characterizes cancer.
“Our strength and success over the past decade has been underpinned by our ability to move between various model systems, including yeast, worms, and mice, to exploit their respective experimental strengths,” Dr. Boulton explained. “My goal for the next five to ten years is to add a translational component to our research program, in order to develop compounds that could be used in the clinical setting.”
Levi A. Garraway
Dr. Garraway is co-leader of the Cancer Genetics Program at Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, and a Senior Associate Member at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Dr. Garraway’s research has focused on the discovery of new cancer genes and cellular pathways that are relevant across several different malignancies, particularly melanoma and prostate cancer. Recently, he discovered cancer-promoting mutations in what is known as the “dark matter” of the genome — DNA that does not code for proteins but plays a role in gene regulation.
Another area of focus is studying how genetic or molecular changes enable tumors to develop resistance to targeted therapies, especially in melanoma.
Furthermore, Dr. Garraway’s team is adapting genomic technology to enable the use of this information to guide clinical decision making. “The challenge now is shifting from gene discovery to making the information practical so that it can enable personalized cancer medicine,” he said.
Duojia (DJ) Pan
Dr. Pan is a Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator.
His most important accomplishment is the discovery of the Hippo signaling pathway, a central mechanism that regulates tissue growth in animals ranging from insects to humans.
Using the fruit fly Drosophila as a model system, his laboratory made a series of discoveries that allowed them to decode, in a stepwise manner, the key molecular events in the Hippo pathway. Their research further established a critical role for the Hippo pathway in controlling organ size and tumorigenesis in mammals.
“A hallmark of cancer is uncontrolled growth,” he explains. “By studying the mechanisms and genes that regulate tissue growth in normal development, we can better understand why and how mutations of certain genes lead to cancer.”
Dr. Pan’s current work is focused on understanding the physiological signals that control the Hippo pathway during normal development.