Andy Futreal and Helen Piwnica-Worms elected Fellows of the AACR Academy

Award recognizes significant contributions to cancer research and treatment 

Two researchers from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have been elected to the 2023 class of Fellows of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Academy. Andy Futreal, Ph.D., chair of Genomic Medicine, and Helen Piwnica-Worms, Ph.D., professor of Experimental Radiation Oncology, are recognized for their respective contributions to advancing our understanding of cancer genomics and cell cycle regulation.

The mission of the AACR Academy is to honor distinguished scientists whose contributions have propelled significant progress and breakthroughs against cancer. This year’s class of 23 inductees joins 289 existing fellows in working collectively advancing the mission of the AACR.

Futreal and Piwnica-Worms join 12 previously-elected fellows from MD Anderson, including current members James P. Allison, Ph.D.Neal G. Copeland, Ph.D., Ronald A. DePinho, M.D.Nancy A. Jenkins, Ph.D., V. Craig Jordan, Ph.D., Margaret L. Kripke, Ph.D., Guillermina (Gigi) Lozano, Ph.D., and Louise C. Strong, M.D. Former members, now deceased, include Isaiah J. Fidler, D.V.M., Ph.D., Emil J Freireich, M.D., Waun Ki Hong, M.D., and John Mendelsohn, M.D.

“Drs. Futreal and Piwnica-Worms truly embody the spirit of MD Anderson – to lead exceptional research that can produce lasting impacts,” said Peter WT Pisters, M.D., president of MD Anderson. “We are proud to see them recognized for their groundbreaking discoveries that have shaped our understanding of cancer. Congratulations to our esteemed colleagues on this outstanding honor.”

Futreal was elected for his pioneering use of large-scale genomics to understand cancer pathogenesis and to identify novel human cancer genes. His breakthrough discovery of BRAF mutations in human melanoma led to the development of the first effective targeted therapy for advanced melanoma, thus inspiring a global effort in cancer genomics.

A visionary leader in genetics and genomics of human cancer, Futreal made multiple seminal discoveries of susceptibility genes and somatic genetic alterations, including the identification of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. He elucidated fundamental aspects of cancer genomics as the leader of Sanger Institute’s Cancer Genome Project, establishing the concept of driver and passenger genes to identifying novel mutational processes. Further, he was the first to identify a driving role for chromatin modification genes in kidney cancer, and he championed data sharing by establishing the COSMIC database and the cancer gene census. Finally, he led impactful work to understand effects of tumor heterogeneity and evolution on treatment response and toxicity, as well as groundbreaking large-scale studies to integrate longitudinal omics with clinical data to drive patient insights.

Among many honors, Futreal was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was honored with the NIH Public Service Award for his BRCA1 discoveries.

Piwnica-Worms is recognized for her breakthrough contributions to understanding the biochemical mechanisms of cell cycle regulation and for determining how perturbations in cell cycle control mechanisms contribute to cancer onset. She elucidated the biochemical mechanism by which the key mitotic regulator CDK1 is turned on and off during a normal cell cycle and how its activation is prevented by cell cycle checkpoints.

Her elucidation of CHK1, CDC25 and 14-3-3 interactions provided the first direct link between cell cycle checkpoints and mitotic control. This work has been essential to the understanding of breast cancer development and progression. Her discoveries led to multiple clinical investigations targeting cell cycle and checkpoint proteins, including ATR, CHK1 and WEE1 in multiple cancer types. Currently, she focuses on identifying alterations driving triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) and mechanisms of therapeutic resistance. She demonstrated that chemotherapy resistance in TNBC can arise through adaptive and reversible mechanisms, and she identified vulnerabilities in drug-tolerant cancer cells.

Piwnica-Worms was honored in 2022 with the AACR Distinguished Lectureship in Breast Cancer Research, which recognizes an outstanding scientist whose work has inspired new perspectives on the etiology of breast cancer. She has received numerous additional honors, including membership in the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“The contributions of Dr. Futreal and Dr. Piwnica-Worms to our understanding of the genomics and cell cycle regulation of human cancer simply cannot be overstated. Their discoveries already have made a significant impact and will have incredible lasting benefits for the scientific community and for patients,” said Giulio Draetta, M.D., Ph.D., chief scientific officer. “We are proud to have them as members of the MD Anderson research community, which continually strives to drive impactful cancer breakthroughs. I want to congratulate the entire 2023 class of Fellows, whose inspirational work drives us all toward ending cancer.”