Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) announced last week that it is awarding 10 grants of $750,000 each to early-career scientists to support innovative, high-risk, high-reward projects in cancer research.

The announcement was made at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, SU2C’s Scientific Partner.

“We have selected 10 scientists and projects that we believe use new insights and fresh approaches and have high potential to make a difference for people with cancer,” said William G. Kaelin Jr., MD, professor of medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and chairman of the SU2C Innovative Research Grant (IRG) review committee. “Just as importantly, SU2C is investing in the future of cancer research by supporting an outstanding group of early-career investigators whom we believe are rising stars in science.”

The announcement marks the third time SU2C has selected a class of Innovative Research Grant recipients. Previous classes were announced in 2009 and 2011. With the new class of IRGs, the total number of recipients now stands at 36.

Serving as Stand Up To Cancer’s celebrity ambassador at the event was Sonequa Martin-Green, 31, an actress and producer who is a main cast member in the hit television show “The Walking Dead,” in which she plays a survivor of the zombie apocalypse. In real life, she has lost several members of her extended family to cancer, and has other relatives, including her mother, who are cancer survivors.

“I have seen the terrible toll that cancer can take in a single family, so I respect and fully support these outstanding researchers in their battle against cancer,” Martin-Green said. “Hopefully the innovative ideas they are pursuing will one day spare other families the losses that my family, and so many other families have endured.”

The 10 grant recipients work at eight different institutions across the country where they have their own, independent laboratories. These innovative projects are characterized as “high-risk” because they either challenge existing paradigms, utilize novel concepts or approaches, and because in order to receive a grant, the applicants were not required — as they would be by most conventional funding mechanisms — to have already conducted a portion of the research resulting in an established base of evidence. If successful, the projects have the potential for “high-reward” in terms of saving lives.

“We’re trying to find the superstars of tomorrow and set them on their course by giving them funding so they don’t have to worry about that at this earlier stage of their career,” said Sara A. Courtneidge, PhD, associate director for translational sciences of the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University and vice-chairperson of the review committee.

“These grants will allow them to get off to a really good start in their independent research programs, take this research to the next level and then apply for more traditional funding mechanisms to take it forward,” she said. “I see it as a really good opportunity for young people not to have to worry so much about where their next grant is coming from until they’ve got themselves established.”

The scope of the projects selected range from tumor metabolism to imaging of drug response in single cells to mathematical models of combination drug therapy to the use of certain enzymes as new anticancer targets, among other topics.

With their institutions and the titles of their proposals, the IRG recipients are:

• John G. Albeck, PhD, University of California, Davis: Targeting cellular plasticity in individual basal-type breast cancer cells;

• Kara A. Bernstein, PhD, University of Pittsburgh: Uncovering how RAD51 paralog mutations contribute to cancer predisposition;

• Juan R. Cubillos-Ruiz, PhD, Weill Cornell Medicine : Phospholipid messengers as drivers of dendritic cell dysfunction in cancer;

• Greg Michael Delgoffe, PhD, University of Pittsburgh: Metabolic reprogramming using oncolytic viruses to improve immunotherapy;

• Martin Kampmann, PhD, University of California, San Francisco: “Weak links” in cancer proteostasis networks as new therapeutic targets; 

• Dan A. Landau, MD, PhD, Weill Cornell Medicine: Algorithmically-driven quantitative combination cancer therapy engineering;

• Li Ma, PhD, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center: Deubiquitinating enzymes as novel anticancer targets;

• Melissa Skala, PhD, Vanderbilt University (moving to Morgridge Institute for Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison): Imaging cell-level heterogeneity in solid tumors for personalized treatment; 

• Matthew G. Vander Heiden, MD, PhD, Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Defining the metabolic dependencies of tumors; and

• Hao Zhu, MD, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center: Defining the mechanistic connections between injury, regeneration, and cancer.

More than 250 applications were received, from which 16 finalists were chosen to make presentations in person to a committee of senior scientists.

“They were all incredibly good,” said William G. Nelson, MD, PhD, vice-chair of the review committee and director of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore. “Very hard-working, ambitious, and imaginative, each and every one of them. Their ideas were high-risk and high-reward, but the young scientists themselves were sure bets. They are going to go places.”

The term of the grants begins July 1 and runs for three years. The scientists will report their progress twice a year to SU2C and the AACR, which organized the application and review process and will administer the grants.

Since 2008, SU2C has successfully launched 19 Dream Teams, two Translational Research Teams, and 36 Innovative Research Grants with funds committed by philanthropic, organizational, corporate and individual donors, as well as non-profit collaborators.

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